HARD BOILED is not just the greatest action film of all time, it is one of the greatest films ever! I think the dilemma with most when confronting Woo’s films is that they try to compartmentalize his films into generic codes (heroic bloodshed/ HK shoot ‘em up) and past models (Melville/Leone/Peckinpah), thereby neutralizing the films’ incendiary power. Woo’s images (especially in HARD BOILED) throw themselves head-first into delirium, and this is where I believe some people are turned off by Woo’s films, checking off the films’ hysteric inventiveness as sheer “ridiculousness”. Yet I think the value of John Woo’s films is exactly in these ridiculous, maddening, blazing images. I will never forget three key images from HARD BOILED:
1) The titanic underground arsenal of weapons hidden right below a hospital.
2) Goons posing as the hospital’s security guards, while the doctors are actually undercover cops.
3) Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung suddenly emerging out of a mortuary’s cold chambers, guns ablaze.
These delirious images don’t call for realism, or even an analysis looking for anything that would indicate an auteur’s themes and obsessions (although this too is productive). Rather the complexity, the energy, the insanity, of these images rouses thought outside the film – simply put (I’ll quote the great critic Nicole Brenez, a huge admirer of Woo’s work), “one can think WITH [this] film, and not simply about [it]….” We can progress further with these images, we can use these images as demonstrations of our individual thought. Like the underground weapons arsenal hidden below a hospital is a demonstration of the contradictions of the present world – a center of life controlled below by a center of terror. Image no. 2 permeates the whole of HARD BOILED: the horror at realizing one can never figure out who his salvation and damnation is. And I think Image No. 3 is just such a poetic image, almost like a resurrection scene for those two characters in that particular point in the film. So we have to give so much thanks to John Woo for giving us these images, because I think we can better ourselves with these things.
I’ve heard RED CLIFF was a return to form for Woo because I’m not a fan of his American work (though I haven’t seen WINDTALKERS and since Lehtonen and The Ferroni Brigade love it I might as well see it soon). A BETTER TOMORROW and BULLET IN THE HEAD kinda leave me cold (the latter needs a rewatch immediately), but yes he is under-appreciated since everyone is still honoring him ONLY as a great action director. Like John Carpenter, Johnnie To, and John McTiernan, he deserves much more than that.
This post is too long…
HARD BOILED is not just the greatest action film of all time, it is one of the greatest films ever!
Woo hasn’t been worth a bag of shit coloured nuts in almost 20 years. Windtalkers was fucking awful.
I was obsessed with him in the mid 90s but i honestly think he is one of those directors that you kind of grow out of.
@i.l.: i strongly agree with you on the fact that Hard Boiled is not just the greatest action film of all time, it’s one of the greatest films ever. It totally beats the shit out of Die Hard, which is bafflingly considered the greatest action movie of all time..
Shit. Double post.
“I’m not sure about the melodrama designation”
Watcha gonna call it then? Hyperbolic?
@The Dude: None taken. Think of that post as the bat signal.
@I.L: You know I love you bro.
It’s not even melodrama in my opinion; I believe that they’re forms of character development and psychology, which Woo loves to explore, which is why I’ll keep on asking y’all what are your expectations in an action movie. Should they be brainless wall-to-wall action or something more fleshed out?
@ Matt & The Dude
Here Tony Williams explains that Eastern melodrama is more inclusive than the Western definition. He call HB apocalyptic melodrama – it isn’t just a melodrama – one needs to hold two opposing thoughts to get at what Williams is saying.
@Robert W Peabody III : Interesting contextualization. I wasn’t really thinking of melodrama has genre, though. I was thinking heightened emotions and all.
@The Dude : But melodrama doesn’t mean lack of character development and psychology, does it? Now I love some of John Woo’s films (I have already mentioned Bullet in the Head, which I think is by far Woo’s best), but Hard Boiled just does nothing for me when it’s not on action mode, I find the characters simply unengaging, even my man Anthony Wong has been given a fairly boring role.
My favorite action film is The Blade, which is definitively not just wall-to-wall action. Coincidentally, it was directed by Tsui Hark, Woo’s ex-partner who also happens to be a lot less well-known outside his own country. Where’s the Tsui Hark love on Mubi? :)
…the power of your perception is finely tuned Monsieur Zom
By that, you mean?
You correctly sensed melodrama in Woo’s work.
Ah… Sarcastic much?
Was just clearing up what I meant by melodrama, since I was the one who brought it up.
Not at all…you were the one who brought melodrama into the conversation.
@monsieur zom: I like Zu Warriors and Detective Dee. Does that console you?
@The Dude : So much so, that’ll concede I thought Mad Dog in Hard Boiled was one of the best vilain henchman out there! hehe!
@monsieur zom: yes, he was pretty badass. Only Tequila beats his badass-ness.
I don’t think John Woo is under-appreciated at all. He is one of the key figures in a movement in Chinese cinema and that was before he even came to the states to make films.
Probably one of the few auteurs to find a comfortable home to flex himself within genre conventions and not be too constrained by them creatively.
Yes, Woo is a landmark filmmaker, but I don’t believe his films are taken as seriously as some cinephiles have with masterpieces like Vertigo or Eyes Wide Shut. As long as popular cinema (distinct from, although sometimes overlapping with, commercial cinema) – the HK action flick, the Bollywood musical, the raunchy American comedy – continues to be wrongly looked down upon, Woo will be regarded as a director one “grow[s] out of.”
@I.L.: That’s exactly my point! He needs to be taken just as seriously as Hitchcock and not end up like De Palma whose work is still being violently debated as either schlocky trash or accomplished art. Most of the people who posted here ended up talking about how he makes “melodrama” or overly sentimental stuff, but c’mon, Hitchcock technically made “melodrama” too. Both were just so great at they were doing that their movies transcended melodrama borders.
Fuck it. Woo is misunderstood. And underappreciated in the process.
And we can always be kids. There are some things we can’t grow out of or don’t deserve to be.