Story: Tequila (Chow Yun-fat) is a tough cop, who doesn't always stick to the rules. On one of his police
operations a big shoot-out breaks loose, in which not just many policemen lose their lives, but also a great amount
of civilians. Moreover, he loses a good friend of his during the operation, too, which is why he is even the more
determined to solve the case and get the men behind the arms smuggler group responsible.
At the same time, undercover cop Alan (Tony Leung) watches the power structure within the arms dealer organisation he works for shift. Cold-blooded Johnny (Anthony Wong) wants to take out the reigning boss and take over the organisation. For this he needs the help of hitman Alan, who, however, is bound to his boss by a certain kind of loyalty. Nonetheless, Alan doesn't know which side he is on for a long time already, until he runs into Tequila. After a few initial hostile encounters, they become a team, and with the help of an informant they find out where Johnny hides his weapons. A bloody and bullet-loaden showdown commences...
Review: For many "Hard Boiled" is THE action flick from John Woo. Never before did you see such style-
and adrenaline-loaden action on screen. Woo really did come up with quite some innovative ideas to write movie
history with his work. Unfortunately, "Hard Boiled" isn't that masterpiece many think it is. The movie simply lacks
the emotional profoundness of a "A Better Tomorrow" or the gritty look of a "Bullet in the Head". The story just
serves as a byproduct, which provides us with a minimalisic filler between the many, and fantastically intense
shootouts. Still, somehow I expected a bit more, since John Woo is also well known for his well elaborated characters.
In the end, Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung can make up for some of the shortcomings with their acting proficiency, yet
it remains indisputable that "Hard Boiled" is nothing more than a very good action film. But, then again, this will
be enough for most viewers.
The movie oddly enough opens in a jazz bar, at which we see Tequila playing the clarinet. We get to understand that the main protagonist is a guy like any other, who has his hobbies, and found a place where to find some piece of mind, namely the jazz bar where he returns to when things become too much. However, soon after this serene introduction, Woo hits us with a shoot-out in a tea house the likes we learnt to love to see from him. Chow Yun-fat flies over tables in dual-gun mode, shoots down everything that moves and looks like a villian, while wood furniture splinters into little pieces and civilians kick the bucket. In fact, it's really shocking how many innocent die in "Hard Boiled". Woo knows no forgiveness, which becomes even more apparent during the hospital shootout later on. He simply makes everyone bite the dust who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Nevertheless, it's shootouts like those that gave Woo the name of "Mozart of action" or "God of Bullet Ballet". Just look at the many details during the shootings, like the surroundings that are affected by the bullets or the many aesthetical action sequences, e.g. when Tequila shoots down his enemies while sliding down a banister.
The first hour of the film is mainly reserved for introducing us to the several characters, though. Yet, most of them remain astonishingly shallow, and almost seem genre-typical. Tequila is your standard tough cop, who doesn't stick to the rules, and also doesn't refrain from getting into arguments with his superior over and over again. Of course, there is also a small love story with one of his female superiors, played by Teresa Mo, but this is all drawn very thinly and is of no real importance.
This shallowness stands out especially strong when it comes to the main villian. Anthony Wong plays the antagonist without any depth. Despite all his actions we never feel any hatred towards him. Sadly, back then Anthony Wong didn't have the experience he has nowadays, because otherwise he would have managed to bestow something special upon his role, nonetheless. However, as things are, Tony Leung remains the only one to give his character some kind of three dimensional traits. Even though Chow Yun-fat has some nice scenes, too, mainly thanks to its charisma, Leung remains the heart of the film on an acting level.
Leung plays the undercover cop, who slowly starts to realize that he doesn't know anymore if he is still one of the good guys or not, and he does so quite convincingly. Actually, he simply wants to get the case over and done with and migrate to Antarctica. His inner conflict really becomes apparent thanks to Leung's subtle acting, and we also get to know more about him during some of his conversations with Tequila. One special scene on the rooftop of a skyscraper where he has a meeting with the only superior that knows about Alan's work as an undercover cop and his true identity, has been payed homage at a decade later in "Infernal Affairs". But where latter one could score on a story-narrating and character exploring level, "Hard Boiled" has quite some deficits.
Anyway, that scene isn't the only one that should be re-used in later movies. John Woo himself used many of his ideas he brought on screen in this movie, in some of his later Hollywood movies.
As a matter of fact, we never can weave a bond to the events and characters unfolding on screen, yet there is another nicely done shoot-out in a factory floor. This finally changes after the first hour, when Tequila and Alan start to work together as a team. The two aren't your usual buddies, and they maybe also don't get along too well at first, but the chemistry between them is perfect. By the way, the last hour comes as one single gigantic showdown, in which first the level of tension gets constantly raised until bullets start to fill air like oxygen. The scenes at the hospital are full of bloody action, but you also have to ask yourself, if it was really necessary for the villians to shoot down so many innocent patients.
Two scenes stand out especially strong. One is when Tequila shoots his way through an army of villians while holding a baby in his arm, and another is a very dynamically shot action hunt through the hospital's corridors, during which the camera stays close to the protagonists for several minutes while there is not one single cut. Great stuff!
"Hard Boiled" is a movie which we would have wished for to be complemented with a better story. The action is great, no question about it, the two main actors are too, it just takes too long until we can relate to the two protagonists. Furthermore, a few badly written dialogues and some thinly drawn supporting characters spoil the overall picture. Another thing that feels a bit superfluously thrown into the movie is John Woo's cameo as a barkeeper, who just happens to be of help for Tequila with some wise catch phrases whenever the cop has lost his way.
Still, despite some flaws "Hard Boiled" will always remain a film you will need to watch because of its extremely impressive action. Action never used to mean the same since John Woo gave it a new face with his vision of how shoot-outs are supposed to look like. And in this movie he shows some of his greatest ideas. You don't get to see so much and beautifully executed action on screen as in this movie. That being said, and despite all criticism: This is a must-see for action-fans!