A brief scene in Hard-Boiled captures an undercover cop (Tony Leung) while he's patching up a wound he received in a flurry of bullets and explosions. Smoke bounces off the ceiling of his house-boat, where the handmade paper cranes we've seen him make dangle in a cigarette-created fog. He twinges in pain while covering up the wound, pacing in retrospective agony around a claustrophobic space unbefitting of what we'd imagine for the slick, revered mob assassin. This glimpse comes after a brutal firefight in a warehouse where he endlessly fired automatic and single-round guns in an attempt to mow through gangster brothers, enemies, and police alike -- yet he refrains from pulling the trigger on the possessed, clarinet-playing cop Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) from point-blank range. It's obvious why he does so, but that doesn't detract it from being a tetchy emotional bombshell in the wake of a nail-chomping burst of action.
Hong Kong director John Woo understands the gallery of archetypes scurrying around in Hard-Boiled, and, in the bombast of its action trappings, he never loses sight from a focus on the affinity between contrasting characters. That's an impressive feat, allowing a scene like Tony patching up a bullet wound to legitimately work in a film that, according to Movie Body Counts, tallies up over 300 deaths in its furious, breathless rush through two hours of chaos. Yet that's what differs Woo from other action directors, who reshaped the genre in the late-'80s and early-'90s with a wave of bullets, panache, and glimmers of meaningfulness, straight from the heart of impulsive HK cinema. Woo's electric eye for action holds no parallel, both in airtight execution and take-aback exhilaration, yet Hard-Boiled also generates a certain expressive flare that consistently defies the genre's limitations.
Woo first gets the foundation right by executing three of cinema's most hostile and attention-grabbing firefights in Hard-Boiled, built around a tea house soiree as a catalyst, the aformentioned blitzed war in a warehouse as an escalation point, and the legendary hospital sequence at the end as the end-all, be-all -- each somewhat claustrophobic, but all wide enough to encapsulate a huge range of action. They all explode in a relentless slurry of dual-pistoled, fire-billowing bedlam, residual bodies flying about as Tequila rides a current of revenge over his partner's death as inspiration. Walls shatter and sparks fly as the jazz-playing, conflicted cop and his assailants use the environment like a destructible playground, throwing caution to the wind to pump up the operatic energy pulsating at the film's core. Once we see Tequila use the railing alongside a set of stairs as a slick backing for his rapid pistol-wielding down the steps, it's obvious that Woo's over-the-top style has found a zenith that's both jaw-dropping and, somehow, viable. It really doesn't get any better than this.
Something that always impresses about John Woo's films is his deft awareness of the language of bullets, not so much the realism of their movement -- which can get harebrained, quick -- but the reasons why a hero continually dodges getting hit. Many action films feature a wave of gunfire that makes the central character appear like he's wearing an invisible bullet-proof cloak, jettisoning him or her from safe locations in what seems like an unassailable blur. Woo knows that action can something be jerry-rigged together to conveniently smear over instances where people should be hit, and he uses that awareness to do the exact opposite: he shows where bullets get panged off and where explosiveness erupts, painting a clear and penetrating image of what's going on. The fact that he retains this in Hard-Boiled, especially amid the anarchistic hospital sequence at the end, proves to be a true testament to both his filmmaking aptitude and his attentiveness to his audience's brainpower.
In the process, Hard-Boiled squeaks in a full-bodied eye for visual magnetism. Woo's always been revered for his motifs, especially of flapping birds and diving dual-weaponed warriors, and he reaches deeper into his creative satchel for some cunning images here. He uses the angular indentation of a book's shape in a pool of blood as both an edgy clue to solving a case and a uniquely violent rumination, while using Tequila's girlfriend's off-kilter disdain for white roses and the similarity between a bullet casing and the iris of an eye as momentum-driving mechanics. None of Woo's images are subtle, really, and they're oftentimes somewhat unnecessary in the wasp's nest of buzzing activity; however, they do add another artful dimension to the swarm of gunplay, in-tow with his mainstay focus on birds and the point-blank, gun-in-hand stalemate between two conflicted men. And it's hard to deny the cleverness behind the writing that backs these images, such as the usage of individual cells in a hospital morgue as both entry and exit points within the fray.
Without debate, Hard-Boiled will be something of a godsend to those who claim action as a cinematic forte, while the precision in Woo's craft takes its chaotic fury into the realm of violent art. The director rides along the line between flying off the rails and staying fully coherent throughout, dizzying to process when thinking about the patience required to execute some of the sequences. But he also never loses sight of the human language either, projected through an emblazoned but empathetic turn from Chow Yun-Fat and a surprisingly nuanced -- and often overlooked -- duplicitous performance from Tony Leung that predates his Chen Wing Yan performance in Infernal Affairs by over ten years. Yeah, you're going to get a rush out of the final collaboration between Woo and Chow Yun-Fat that'll deliver over and over, no matter how many times you've seen that exquisite long-shot in the hospital or experience the tense sequence around saving babies, but there's an eloquent side behind Woo's filmmaking that shouldn't go underscored. His HK films certainly knew how to blow things up, but they also know how to balance the fire with just the right amount of cool composure.
Video and Audio:
Dragon Dynasty got off to a rocky start with their Blu-ray catalog, offering John Woo's highly-anticipated The Killer in a disappointingly lackluster package. Sure, it improves on their DVD presentation, but the fact that the high-definition transfer stands at 1080i -- both limiting the resolution and the ability to see the film in its native 24fps film movement -- caused a lot of frustration. Since, however, they've hit back stronger, cranking out quite a few solid upgrades with Legend of the Black Scorpion and Tai-Chi Master. Hard-Boiled fits somewhere in the middle as a merely decent uptick in the high-definition format, presented in a brow-wiping 1080p AVC encode that's off-and-on respectable and tolerably stable. One or two instances of vertical line damage, speckles, and shaky frame shifts rear their heads, as well as some heavy grain and low-detail smoothness, but other scenes project healthy levels of fine detail, robust skin complexion, and competency in digital rendering of fast-paced movement. It's neither great nor a stark advance, but it's a very watchable HD presentation that does peak higher over other releases of Woo's sordidly-handled work.
It's in the audio department -- not so much the sound itself, but the ability to "comprehend" the sound -- that Dragon Dynasty hits a pothole. First, the aural presentations: Hard-Boiled arrives with a few different sound options, notable being the Cantonese DTS HD Master Audio track and the original Cantonese Monaural track. When it comes down to it, the high-definition audio track truthfully sounds like a spit-shined monaural track that's been blown up like a water balloon to echo to the side and rear channels. There's very little bass to speak of, aside from a few forceful explosions, while the gunshots ricochet and pierce in a very high-pitched fashion -- all things, though, that root in the source's aural limitations. Dragon Dynasty does present the material in a finely-synched, robust stream of clarity that sees a respectable level of polish in regards to balance, noise distortion, and awareness of age. The subtitles, however, are where the Dragon Dynasty Blu-ray veers in a negative direction, which are the dreaded dubtitles stricken from the English-language track on the disc. Though tolerable for the sake of the film, that stings. Optional English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
Audio Commentary with In-House HK Expert Bey Logan:
If you're a fan of Hong Kong cinema, than just mentioning the name Bey Logan with a commentary track immediately suggests a nod of approval. Here, in this commentary lifted from the "Ultimate Edition" DVD, he talks about Tony Leung and Chow Yun-Fat's dispositions as people and how they differ from their on-screen appearances, where the two derive their training from, and how the two never seemed to have any off-screen rehearsals or hang-out time (Logan was on the set a few times). He discusses the bold-faced "copying" of an important scene from Hard-Boiled in Infernal Affairs (which is pretty damn obvious), how the Shaw Brothers' style of fighting and dramatic acting slip into Woo's film, and the contortion Woo often orchestrates in transforming places of healing -- like a hospital, or a church -- into a place where lots of death and destruction occur. And there's a lot more content crammed in there.
A Baptism of Fire: An Interview with John Woo (38:20, SD MPEG-2):
John Woo mills over his influences -- Bullitt, Clint Eastwood, and others -- and how they came together into his Hong Kong version of Dirty Harry. He talks about the political topics in the film, the drastic shifts in the script that occurred in the creative process, and how he interrelated Hard-Boiled and The Killer (though, a warning: if you haven't seen The Killer, refrain from seeing this featurette until doing so). He name-drops Alain Delon in Le Samourai, about how he only cares about what he's trying to say about a scene, and the very simple motivation he had for doing his intensely gripping one-shot in the hospital. It's a strong interview, even if Woo meanders and drags on a bit.
The rest of the supplemental features on the Blu-ray are all carried over from Dragon Dynasty's Ultimate Edition DVD, which include pieces from the Interview Gallery -- a slick and insightful spot with co-star Philip Chan (15:57, SD MPEG-2) that dips into his experience with actual police work and the pre-CG action filmmaking, and a subtitled conversation with badass villain Kwok Choi (25:04, SD MPEG-2) -- as well as the cheeky Hard-Boiled Location Guide with Kea Wong (8:28, SD MPEG-2), essentially a fluff tour-guide piece (that, yes, still has dubtitled footage from the film). Note that the interview with producer Terrence Chang, the Trailer Gallery, and the Stranglehold videogame tie-in fluff have been excised, unlike what the back of the packaging states.
There's no dancing around it: Hard-Boiled rocks, intensely. With slick characterizations, John Woo's signature flare for visuals, and a relentless cascade of action populating its blitzed two-hour timeframe, it'll end a lot quicker than you're expecting and leave the adrenaline pulsating like few action films can. But don't let that take away from the streamlined-yet-sharp emotive core that it possesses, which happens to be both an homage to roguish / renegade cop films and a precursor to similar pictures about duality in the mob. Dragon Dynasty's Blu-ray isn't a shining beacon of the format, sporting a ever-so-slightly improved HD transfer of a lackluster source and losing one or two supplements from the DVD, but it comes down to this: this visualization of one Hong Kong's best exports is a sustainably stable way of watching it in 1080p, the lion's share of the supplements -- including a commentary and a lengthy interview with John Woo -- carry over, and the price ($20 list) eases the blow. That earns Hard-Boiled a Recommendation, even if it's neither "ultimate" nor wholly cashing in on the film's potential on the format.