Hard-Boiled

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #9: John Woo’s Hard-Boiled.

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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.

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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.

Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Bar­bara Schar­res
The Cri­te­ri­on Contraption’s review.