How many different ways are there to shoot a gunfight?
Ask John Woo.
From the first confusing sting operation in a Hong Kong tea room to the final explosive confrontations in a besieged hospital, Woo's HARD-BOILED pretty much catalogs the possibilities. In HARD-BOILED and Woo's previous U.S. hit, THE KILLER, the proceedings are underscored by a tragic sense of morality and loyalty that is riddled by bullets but still manages to climb out of the rubble at the end of the film.
Chow Yun-Fat plays Tequila, a strong-minded policeman (the title of the film translates literally as "Hot-Handed God of Cops," which deliberately echoes the Chinese title of DIRTY HARRY) who clashes with his department while investigating arms smugglers at the same time as a precariously positioned undercover agent (Tony Leung). That's all you need to know to sit back and enjoy the fireworks, which include mid-air stunts, a spectacular motorcycle raid, cops sliding down banisters while pumping heat from both fists, etc etc etc.
It's hard for an American audience to imagine these exhilarating scenes, which are both brutal and melodramatic, without seeing them. A viewer weaned on Tarantino films will recognize Keitel's absurd two-gun action in RESERVOIR DOGS as well as the pistol-pointing histrionics of TRUE ROMANCE, which were both cribbed from Woo's impressive body of work. But the blood spatters and gun metal are countered by meditations on friendship and honor that are absolutely sincere. This dichotomy is a characteristic of Hong Kong movies in general, which are among the world's most violent, but often showcase achingly sentimental Chinese pop songs, or resort to goofy humor for character development in between frenzied scenes of hand-to-hand combat. But in Woo's hands, the emotion can become overwhelming.
At the same time, there's a real horror to some of the violence, even though we're meant to revel in the pyrotechnics of it all. This movie has a higher squib count than anything you've seen since DAWN OF THE DEAD, and it's hard not to look on the film as essentially pessimistic. Good will triumph in the end, but a lot of good and innocent people are getting splattered across the wall in the process.
What does it all mean? Well, it's hard to tell. Certainly Woo is infatuated with the possibility that on-screen violence can be a shorthand for intense emotional feeling. The consensus on HARD-BOILED seems to be that Woo has finally embraced the Hollywood style of filmmaking, offering up a tale that's high on bloodshed and heroics and low on the kind of irony that made THE KILLER such a unique experience. At the same time, more than one critic has suggested that this, the last film Woo made in his native Hong Kong, is something of a warning to Hong Kong audiences. Woo can hardly be looking forward to the year 1997, when Hong Kong comes under the rule of the Chinese government. HARD-BOILED's extended hospital sequence, with helpless patients and infants caught in a relentless crossfire, can be seen as a metaphor for confusion and confrontation in Woo's homeland, represented in miniature by the hospital itself.
What's certain is that HARD-BOILED is Woo's most entertaining work, at least for my own western eyes. It's not his best, though. THE KILLER is more haunting, and more satisfying. And Woo's singularly disturbing Vietnam saga, BULLET IN THE HEAD, reigns supreme as one of the most demanding viewing experiences of the last 10 years. As usual, Woo's orchestration of friendship, violence, and the death of innocents is a reflection of the larger picture that he sees. He asks whether we can possibly survive the world's cruelty and compromises with our essential humanity intact. There's a big empty hole at the heart of HARD-BOILED, but that's not necessarily a flaw. We need films sometimes to puzzle over the big empty hole at the heart of the world.
DEEP FOCUS (formerly The Flicker Archive)