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Criticized for "unnecessary violence," Inspector Yuen continues his investigations into the sales and smuggling of guns. Tony is a hired killer and the right hand man of Hoi, the head of the criminal consortium. He has a single rival, Johnny, who plans to double-cross Hoi in a gun deal.
For more about Hard Boiled and the Hard Boiled Blu-ray release, see Hard Boiled Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on December 21, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Director: John Woo
Writer: John Woo
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Teresa Mo, Yun-Fat Chow, Anthony Chau-Sang Wong, Philip Chan, Philip Kwok
» See full cast & crew
Hard Boiled Blu-ray Review
John Woo's early action spectacular arrives on Blu-ray.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, December 21, 2010
John Woo is one of the few foreign born directors who has managed to become an above-the-title with A-Film-by-credit sort of helmsman of near superstar status to many American cineastes. Those who flocked to Face/Off, Mission: Impossible and other Woo blockbusters slowly became more and more aware of the director's early work in the Hong Kong industry, and a number of his first films quickly became at the very least cult items, with more than respectable box office. If The Killer may still be Woo's best remembered early opus, it's certainly in a neck and neck race with Hard Boiled, a film which perhaps even more than The Killer exploits Woo's penchant for hyperbolic action sequences mixed with an odd sort of visual poetry that includes things like an undercover cop hitman molding elegant origami cranes after each of the murders he commits. Hard Boiled follows the well worn technique of matching a crusty cop, "Tequila" (Chow Yun-Fat) with the undercover cop posing as a hitman, Tony (Tony Leung), as they work together to help bring down a nefarious underworld kingpin, Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong). But plots in these early Woo epics (and truth be told even in some of the American films) often take a back seat to the thrill ride of nonstop action sequences, and that penchant is played pedal to the metal (and then some) in Hard Boiled, where shootouts occur in everything from a teahouse to a maternity ward.
It's interesting to contrast Hard Boiled with some of Woo's later pieces. Hard Boiled is certainly a case of a style still in formation, with Woo still occasionally stumbling with odd choices like freeze frames, albeit within some astoundingly excitingly staged action sequences. The first big set piece of Hard Boiled, when Tequila is attempting an undercover sting of his own within the insular confines of a teahouse (where, strangely, everyone brings caged birds to their tables), becomes an orgy of violence as gunfire breaks out and the bad guys end up literally shooting through customers in order to free up an exit route. In the melée Tequila's partner is killed and that of course sets up a standard revenge scenario where the cop is personally compelled to bring about the capture of the gangster in order to avenge the death of his partner. Yes, you've seen this a thousand, maybe a million, times before, but rarely with the visceral impact of a Woo-staged fight scene.
The second half of this odd couple is the undercover cop posing as a hitman, and there's a frightening introduction to his murderous technique in the quiet confines of a library. In fact, Woo seems to exult in the possibilities of introducing violence, whether group (as in the teahouse scene) or individual (as in the library), in settings where any normal person would think they're safe and sound. That's part of the horror of these segments, of course, but the almost blissfully serene surroundings ever so briefly lull the viewer into a momentary state of comfort before all hell breaks loose. The library scene is quick, violent, and merciless, and it indicates very powerfully the conflicted character of Tony.
Woo's anarchic spirit of making supposedly safe places the locales of absolute mayhem reaches its zenith in Hard Boiled's climactic set piece, one of the more famous segments in Hong Kong films of this era. Tequila and Tony end up in a hospital—the place where the sick go to be healed—and are soon involved in a maelstrom of epic proportions as bad guys converge from hidden hallways, crash through maternity ward observation windows, and otherwise wreak havoc on the hallowed halls of doctors and nurses. Woo stages these scenes with an effortless bravado, with long dolly shots retracting down hallways as various people are shot and maimed and either explode into or out of the frame. Of course Chow Yun-Fat gets some heroic antics in this sequence, as he rescues a newborn baby from the violence. But then Woo does something unexpected and rather interesting. The film goes into a patently sadistic coda where Wong, who has taken Tony hostage, humiliates Tequila, making the cop indulge in a series of almost comic self-denigrating behavior, before justice is finally done.
This is early Woo, and so does not have the polish and finesse of the later films. Framing is sometimes awkward, and while the action sequences certainly have a balletic grace that is completely spectacular for early 1990s film, there are still some stumbles along the way which point toward the director still searching for solid ground a time or two. The jazz world backstory for Tequila also never quite works as well as it might have, hampered by simple things like Chow Yun-Fat's complete inability to even fake fingering a clarinet to playback. The pseudo-noir ambience of this film is at odds with the bright candy colored neon of Hong Kong, and it's one element that never gels successfully in Hard Boiled.
Otherwise, though, this is a fascinating early effort from Woo, full of the visceral action sequences and unusually finely drawn characters that manage to evade the pitfalls of cliché-ridden crime films even as they tread through oft-traveled territory. Woo states he always wanted to make an homage to Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen, and if Hard Boiled isn't quite the Hong Kong Dirty Harry that Woo may have set out to make it, it's still an arresting piece of cinema that will leave most viewers breathless.
Hard Boiled Blu-ray, Video Quality
Unfortunately Hard Boiled suffers from one of the shoddier looking Blu-ray transfers in the Dragon Dynasty releases from Vivendi, which may be in large part due to the shape of the master. Encoded via AVC, in 1080p and a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Hard Boiled is one of the softer, grainier films in this series. It may be a slight improvement over the unbelievably shoddy early 1080i releases from Dragon Dynasty, but not by much. In fact the bulk of this film has the soft, artificial appearance of an upconverted SD-DVD. Colors are reasonably robust here, with agreeable sharpness in close-ups at least. But the print is littered with damage and debris, and opticals especially look pretty bad. One bungled special effect in the jazz club will leave you wondering if this was mastered from a mistracking VHS tape. While there may be a slight uptick in quality from the SD-DVD, I doubt too many lovers of Hard Boiled are going to be very excited by this Blu-ray presentation from an image standpoint, and that's a real shame.
Hard Boiled Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Considerably better is Hard Boiled's repurposed lossless Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. This doesn't have the blistering immersion one might expect from a newer film, but the reworking of the original Cantonese mono track (also included via a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix which purists will want to stick with) is quite striking at times, especially (as might be expected) in the many exciting action sequences. Gunfire erupts from a variety of surround channels, with bullets whizzing through the soundfield with abandon. Screams intrude from every nook and cranny, and the rapid fire of automatic gunfire fills the subwoofer with some impressive LFE. This entire film was post-dubbed, and so there are some odd synchronization issues which are not the fault of the track itself, but the source elements. It actually gives Hard Boiled that same slightly surreal quality that populates the similarly recorded Cinecitta films including the Fellini classics. There isn't any egregious damage to the stems, though there is noticeable compression and thin highs at times. An English DD 5.1 dub is also included.
Hard Boiled Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Hard Boiled, like most of the Dragon Dynasty release, comes with some excellent supplements:
Hard Boiled Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Hard Boiled is early Woo, and as such it's not the fully formed action masterpiece that later Woo films have been. That may only add to its quaint (if something this violent can be called quaint) charms. Chow Yun-Fat is graceful and vicious in the lead, and the supporting cast is uniformly excellent. There are certainly enough flashes of the Woo action genius to keep most audience members on an adrenaline high for the bulk of this film. This Blu-ray unfortunately suffers from a pretty shoddy looking transfer, so even fans of this film may want to rent it first before deciding to add it to their collections. Warts and all, though, the film itself is Recommended.
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