22 November 2023

John Woo: Hard Boiled

John Woo is back.  His new picture, Silent Night, drops December 1st.  It’s his first American movie since Paycheck, in 2003, so it’s been awhile.

Woo came to the States in 1992, to work with Jean-Claude Van Damme.  He later made movies with Travolta, Christian Slater, Nic Cage, Dolph Lundgren, Tom Cruise, and Ben Affleck, before he went back to China.  The truth is, he was never a good fit with the American studio system, and I don’t honestly think any of the pictures from his American period are as good as the ones he made before and after. Of his later movies, the five-hour historical epic Red Cliff is a jaw-dropper.  But for sheer delirium, nothing can beat Hard Boiled, the last picture he made in Hong Kong thirty years ago, before he left for Hollywood.

Chow Yun-Fat is the tough cop, Tony Leung is the gang enforcer, and they of course go head-to-head.  But in fact, Tony’s character is undercover, which leads to a lot of doubling up and doubling back and double-crosses, which are John Woo trademarks.   

You didn’t really come for psychological twists and moral crises, though.  You came for the choreographed set pieces, and in Hard Boiled, there are three doozies. 

The first is the shoot-out in the restaurant, which is filled with caged birds, with highly decorative plumage, and you know feathers will start to fly.  (Birds are another repeated Woo visual.)  This is also the first time I recall seeing the stunt where the guy slides down a stairwell banister on his back, shooting a gun in each hand as he slides, all the way to the foot of the stairs.  The second is the shoot-out in the warehouse/garage, which involves a lot of crazy motorcycle jumps and crashes, along with rappelling through a skylight and other acrobatics.  The third and last gunfight is the showdown at the hospital maternity ward, which has to be seen to be believed.

The two cops, our heroes, are trying to thwart a hostage situation, including an entire floor of newborn babies.  There are dozens of bad guys, natch, and as I remember, the whole place has been wired with explosives, but fear not.  At one point, our guys are moving down a long corridor, back to back, so they can cover each other, and shooting out glass walls, left and right, and when it looks like they’re trapped, they duck into an elevator - do a speed reload with fresh magazines – and get out of the elevator on a different floor, and keep shooting.  Lest you think it’s small potatoes, this scene is shot in one take.  Two minutes and forty seconds long.  Word has it that the final shootout took forty days to shoot.

John Woo is nothing if not a technical master, and you find yourself holding your breath in some of his action scenes.  All the same, I think he’s a romantic at heart, like Peckinpah.  The visuals stay with you, but he gives you the emotional punch, to go with them.

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