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Monday, 9 January 2012

Hard Boiled Review

When I was looking for cool pictures to use in my review of "The Killer", I kept coming across awesome images of Chow Yun Fat John-Wooing up the Place, but was unable to use them because they were all screenshots from Hard Boiled. So, I'm gonna add this as Part 2 of my review of Hong Kong Legends DVDs, and let you all know what I thought of Hard Boiled. Whilst breaking the monotony of text with pictures like this:

Hard Boiled is a completely over-the-top action flick from John Woo in which Chow Yun Fat wields a shotgun capable of blowing up a car with a single round (not by blowing up the fuel tank - we're talking grenade-sized explosions going off on the shell of a car here), and whilst this alone would undoubtedly make the movie worth watching, it has plenty of other merits too.

Such as Chow Yun Fat jumping through the air with a pistol in each hand...

The first half of the film focuses on Chow Yun Fat's Inspector Tequila trying to find info on a large-scale Triad arms-importation business, which is intercut with the story of Long, a Triad soldier who finds himself working his way up the ranks, until he betrays his former boss to the heavy hitter handling the arms Tequila is searching for. Whilst the action is pretty insane, and the scenes outside of the action either camp and light, as on Tequila's side, or dark and foreboding, as on Long's side, the story is pretty well a run of the mill tale of Cop vs Criminal. Right up until Tequila raids the storage building one of the Triad shipments is being held in, and all hell breaks loose.

As the Triads flee (or, in most cases, get shot to death), Tequila is left facing off with two of the top shooters, Mad Dog, and Long. After popping smoke to get free of Mad Dog, Tequila rounds on long with a revolver in his hand, and squeezes the trigger. Click. Long takes a good look at Tequila, then uncocks his weapon, and we suddenly realize what is amiss. Long, of course, is a cop. From this point on, the story focusses on the work of the pair to bring down the triads, one from the outside, one from the inside, with the dramatic climax taking up damn near the whole second half of the movie. In terms of sheer scale, Hard Boiled is one of the boldest action films ever created - staging what is effectively an entire war in a hospital for the second half, as the pair discover that this is the main deposit for the triad weapons they have been tracking.

Elements of the story are incredibly well written, and certainly on a par with The Killer. The scene when Tequila first visits Long after discovering he is an undercover cop is very powerful, as we get an insight into Long's world. Tequila asks Long why he has so many paper cranes hanging from the ceiling, and Long responds that he hates them, and so forces himself to make one every time he kills a person. It may sound cheesy taken out of context like that, but it is actually an incredibly insightful and moving scene. This, combined with the other scenes offering insight into Long's life as an undercover - such as the scene where he forgets it's his birthday until the Chief Inspector running him reminds him, or the scene where he tells Tequila that someday he hopes to leave it all behind and move to Antartica, where it is light 24 hours a day in the summer and he can finally come out of the dark - create a very strong character in Long, and it is probably the best insight into the life of a deep undercover cop prior to the release of The Departed. The bond which forms between the two is believable, and whilst they do have their ridiculous moments, the chemistry between the pair feel real. They actually seem to care about one another by the end. Yun Fat's early reaction to his partner's death in the opening Teahouse scene also helps set up the type of character he will be playing - and whilst he still has the air of "The Killer" about him, in many ways Tequila is the opposite side of the spectrum to Ah Jong. Both are arrogant, and both are caring of the people they love. But Tequila seems to want to have fun, and is in his job for the thrill - which makes a weird juxtaposition with the very early death of his partner, and the seriousness with which the bond between him and Long is shown to grow. In essence, Woo has once again given us the story of two men from different background but who have very similar personalities - it's just the twist this time is they're both cops.

Cops who like pointing guns at each other.

Hard Boiled also contains some other fantastic moments, right through from Yun-Fat's impressive takedown of the triad who killed his partner near the beginning:

Say you don't like cocaine again motherfucker, I dare you. I double dare you.

To the incredible two minute corridor shootout scene as we near the finale of the film:

And this scene I wish to discuss in a bit more depth before I move on, because it is just so impressive. When I was reviewing 'Unknown' a few days ago, I made a few passing comments relating to how I liked the movie 'Children of Men'. The great thing about this movie, of course, being the long tracking shots, in which we follow the characters through an incredible amount of dramatic action without the camera ever cutting - all just filmed as a single take. I'm a huge fan of this style of shot (hell, I even bought 'Snake Eyes', simply on the strength of being told it opens with a 15 minute steadicam shot), and love seeing them in any movie, but Children of Men is especially famous for them, because it has so many, and they are so action-packed it is almost unbelievable. The scale of some of these shots is incredible, particularly the one in Bexhill in which we follow Clive Owen down the street in the middle of a warzone as tanks fire on militants, and he struggles to make it into a tower block without being shot. As far as I can tell, there will never be a tracking shot in cinema history which will match that (though time will tell). However, the budget of Children of Men was a whopping $76 million, and whilst the work of the actors, film crew, and director is still very impressive regardless of how much the film cost, the fact that Hard Boiled could do a scene like the one above on a mere 4 and a half Million speaks volumes for the dedication of the crew - especially when you realize that there were no visual effects added in post production as there were with Children of Men. In Hard Boiled, what we're seeing is what's actually happening in front of the camera. Every gunshot is real (well, a real blank), every piece of glass which shatters and every squib which goes off is happening on the set, in real-time. What's crazier still is the fact that in the sequence they don't actually go to another floor on the elevator - the set crew just changed the layout and stuck in some new glass frames whilst the doors were shut. Aside from how impressive the shot is from a logistical and artistic perspective, it is also one of the best scenes of the film in terms of the emotional heights reached by the actors - with Tony Leung's stunned, disbelieving  reaction to accidentally shooting a cop being followed straightaway by Yun Fat's stubborn, angry denials, as he tries to convince Long to focus on the job in hand, and not dwell on what he may just have done. This is one of John Woo's best scenes - and is easily on a par with even the best moments in The Killer. Unfortunately, however, the same cannot be said for much of the rest of the movie.

Whilst the ultra-stylish, ultra-violent action is incredible at times, it is a severe step-down from The Killer, with scenes where the heroes should have been killed not playing out well because the characters are smart, or skillful, but because the enemies are bad shots, or incompetent. In The Killer, we always felt that Ah Jong was one step ahead of everyone else, he was a highly skilled assassin, and he survived the various shootouts of the film because of his skills. In Hard Boiled, when Long and Tequila break into the safe under the hospital which contains the arms they have been searching for, the only reason they survive is because Mad Dog greets them with a single-shot pistol, and apparently no longer has any depth perception.

Granted, it does make sense for him to be a bad shot after losing an eye, but since there were AKs and AR15s lying in crates next to him, that hardly mattered...

Whislt the Teahouse scene is awesome, both for the incredible action, and the moment when Tequila loses his partner, and the Chief Superintendant gives him shit for what he has done, when it transpires later that the man who killed Tequila's partner was another undercover cop, that whole sequence suddenly doesn't make a whole lot of sense any more. We see Long killing other Triads and informants against his will, and we see him suffering for it. We can even believe that he would kill a cop if it absolutely came to it in order to maintain his cover. What he would not do, however, is shoot a wholebunch of innocent people in a Teahouse with an automatic, and then rather than escape when given the opportunity, use another civilian as a human shield, then attempt to kill two cops (and succeed in killing one of them). It just doesn't make sense for him to be a cop, no matter how much it does for the story that Tequila killed an undercover. it would have been far better if the undercover cop had been one of the others killed in the gunfight - as with Punisher: War Zone - the punisher kills the undercover agent in Rosotti's docks before he gets a chance to even draw his weapon, and this is far more convincing than a cop who mows down civilians with a sub-machinegun and shoots another cop to death. Still, the action in that sequence is pretty cool when you watch it without knowing it's another cop Tequila's fighting, so that kind of helps you forgive that mistake...

Other shortcomings in the film include Tequila and 'Madam's interactions all feeling very forced, and his acting out in the police station being too comedic, and not really fitting in with the dark tone of some of the other scenes. Whilst the killer placed over-the-top action in a serious movie, Hard Boiled seems to have fallen back on the Jackie Chan method of Hong Kong film making, intercutting ridiculous action with ridiculous comedy, which really takes the edge off the much darker undertones of scenes like the one in which Long kills the cop, and so makes the whole film feel a bit stupider. Whilst again, most of the action does not suffer from being unrealistic - not in the same way as The Killer, in which his inability to run out of bullets seemed to portray the film from his point of view, as if representing the memories of those involved, whereas in Hard Boiled it seems more to be indicative of the invulnerability of the unstoppable Tequila, plus doesn't really matter since so much of the film is ridiculous and over-the-top - some of the action scenes still felt a bit off. For example, the scenes in which the triads open fire on civilians trying to escape the hospital were very dark, and made for some gruelling watching - but the way that every single time the cops try and get the babies out the hospital some new triad would appear at the windows with a machinegun, and shoot the cops performing the same action as before, just felt a bit much. Not in that it was too dark - but in the sense that it was too unbelievable the same thing could keep on happening and keep catching them out, and they would just keep going at it.

"Shit, Team 4's down. 5 you're up, take their place and do exactly what they were doing"

"Shouldn't we try and give them some more cover, maybe find a better way of doing this?"

"Fuck you, Johnson. If doing the same thing over and over til the job's done doesn't work, I might as well quit now..."

So, parts of the film are incredible, and areas of it are less than impressive. Occasionally it seems to drag (though usually in the scenes which don't include Tequila or Long) and it felt as though John Woo wasn't taking the film quite a seriously as he had The Killer, which is a true masterpiece. This film has its moments, but it had just too many silly elements as well. Whilst at times, these could be cool, such as Chow Yun Fat's bannister slide, or some of the dialogue ("If you obstruct me again, I'll castrate you" perhaps being the most quotable line), the stupidity of scenes like the baby rescue, and the overly light nature of the scenes in the police station, both involving Tequila and the scenes involving Madam and the Chief Inspector, just really felt out of place, and gave the whole movie a campy feel which it really didn't need. And whilst the action was incredible, and the pacing of the film awesome (not to mention the actual story being great), it just really suffered from these flaws.

Though possibly not as much as the guys on the receiving end of Tequila's bullets. Amirite?

Before I sum up, however, I would just like to discuss the ending, because there is some debate around what happened. You see, both times I viewed the film, I came away with the same impression at the end. We see Long take a shot in the stomach, before Tequila shoots Johnny Wong through the eye. We then see Long on the ground, unmoving, before seeing a spinning shot of him on the ground moving slowly outwards. We get audio flashbacks to scenes of him saying about what he'll do when he gets out, and what it has been like being undercover, and we see his file being burned by the chief inspector, using Long's lighter. We then cut to the very last shot, which is of Long on his boat, out at sea and alone, throwing the paper cranes which represent everyone he has killed overboard. Both times I watched this film, I was certain he died. Everything about the ending makes me think he died, and the vision we see of him after is merely symbolic of him having finally cleared his hands of the deaths he is responsible for, and finally being free of the dark world he inhabited. The common consensus, however, is that he lives. In which case, what the fuck was up with that ending? I think I'm going to keep imagining Long died, since I'm fairly sure it was deliberately left open to interpretation, and this seems to make more sense. However, the very fact that this might not be what the film makers intended still bothers me somewhat, because I thought it was a pretty good ending when I saw it.

Unfortunately, looking back at it, the plaster on his forehead seems to be a pretty good indicator that I was wrong, and that the ending was a bit of a cop-out, presumably because the studio didn't want to end on too much of a downer...

But, aside from that ending possibly having been ruined for me thanks to checking the internet (why couldn't you just let me have my dream?), I can't complain much more. I loved the Jazz Bar scenes, mainly because I know that John Woo and Chow Yun Fat both wanted the bar which Jennie played at in "The Killer" to be a Jazz Bar, but were forced to change it to one playing more traditional Chinese Music by the producers. I was also really impressed that in the climactic explosion, it is clearly Chow Yun Fat actually outrunning a wall of flames, and not some stuntman or a bunch of CGI/mini explosions:

Fuck you John Woooooooo!!!!!!!

I guess there's not much more I can say to conclude - great action-packed pulse racing stuff, with some awesome scenes, but a bit too light and stupid in places. This movie has nothing on Woo and Chow's earlier collaboration The Killer, but is still an enjoyable action film. It is definitely worth a watch, even if it isn't quite as satisfying as The Killer, and doesn't have quite such a poignant ending as I had previously thought. The only other thing I would add is that on the DVD version I have, the subtitles appear to have been synched to either the original Hong Kong version, or the American release, which of course play at a slightly different rate to the British one. This means that by the end of the movie, the subtitles for each line come about 3 seconds after the line has been spoken, and this is quite distracting in such an action-laden piece. I suppose it isn't overly important to follow the dialogue for much of the film, but it was especially frustrating in the elevator scene when we see such raw emotion to have it ruined by poorly lined-up subtitles. Still, that's hardly the fault of the film makers, and I shan't hold it against them.



3 Stars

Very enjoyable piece, which I would highly recommend to all action fans. I probably would have enjoyed it even more had I not watched it right after watching The Killer, but never mind: it was still good. Certainly worth a watch, but by no means a cinemtaic masterpiece; it is incredible what was achieved on such a small budget, and as with 'The Killer', nice to see a foreign film do so well in the Hollywood market. However, the overly light and camp tone in places killed it for me a bit, as did some of the other stupider moments, where you really felt the writers could have done a better job. Of course, a lot of the film was rewritten as they went along to lighten the tone, as the script was apparently deemed too dark to shoot. However, it seems they went a bit too far into "camp" territory, and perhaps needed to take a little more time working on the rewrites. The fact that much of the action was devised on location by seeing what was available to use on set is impressive, but the nature of the making of a film does not necessarily make the film itself any better. If you haven't seen this film, check it out; but maybe place it under The Killer in your list of movies to see...


P.S. Awesomely, I ordered this DVD second hand from Play Trade for £1.04, and when it arrived at Play's distribution centre, they decided it was in too poor condition, so binned it. This meant I was refunded the money, AND they sent out a brand new sealed copy for me to have free of charge. Great Success!

1 comment:

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