John Woo must like Jazz clubs, because both The Killer and Hard-Boiled feature them, with Woo making a cameo as the club bartender in Hard-Boiled. Rarely have I seen a film with a body count as high as Hard-Boiled. The influence of Melville’s Le Samouraï is still apparent, [birds in cages, jazz club] but the vivacity of Hong Kong culture once again takes precedence. The characters and plot are basic action movie fare, complete with a tough cop that doesn’t play by the rules, a megalomaniac gang boss and rather blunt critiques of bureaucracy, but while it has the same sort of humor and destruction as Die Hard, there is also a strong sense of wish-fulfillment that isn’t quite as obvious to me in American action films.
What I mean is that films like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are about how Americans see themselves, cocksure and tough as nails, a traditional retelling of What it Means to Be an American. In Hong Kong action, on the other hand, those traits are prominent but ultimately secondary to the emergent culture’s need to define What it Means to Be a Hong Kong Chinese. Thus we get Tequila Yuen’s [Chow Yun-Fat] troubles with his boss/girlfriend Theresa and his difficulty in being able to afford a decent place to live despite being a sergeant on the police force, Tony/Alan’s desire for a private place on Guam, and Theresa desire to have a child despite being a hard working woman. Even Johnny the Triad boss’s search for power reflects a young culture wrestling with an old one.
So Hard-Boiled rings with poignancy at odd times, even during the midst of wholesale slaughter, when Tony and Mad Dog allow some hospital patients to escape before fighting, only to have them mown down by the gang boss who has tossed aside all pretenses of cultural sophistication to feed his ambition. So ambition is considered a virtue [for the cops], but not when it runs over other people [the Triad boss]. I’d contrast this to American action films which preserve the status quo. The characters are focused on their immediate situation and not really on long term goals external to it. The message is “do what needs to be done now, and don’t think about the future” as compared to Hong Kong’s “do what needs to be done now, so we can focus on the important things.”
I’d probably say that Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the mature expression of the new Chinese/Hong Kong culture, and one that probably manages to reconcile that ambition with the ancient traditions. I’d say that The Killer is a better film than Hard-Boiled, but Hard-Boiled is more fun to watch.