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.

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