Rated R for a genocidal amount of death. Yeah, it's gunplay, which is somehow more acceptable than knife violence or bludgeoning. But this is still an extremely gory movie. Like, so many people die and they die horrible deaths. I kind of want to look up the kill count of this movie just to see how absurd that number gets. (It's 307 deaths.)
DIRECTOR: John Woo
Do you know how close I got to not writing today. It was really close. Heck, if Weebly does that thing where it wipes out all of my text, there's a real chance that I save this for tomorrow and just call it a day. I had a ton of grading today, so I was thinking that I would just take it easy after I hit my goal. But no. I have to be productive as the day is long. So I made myself a cup of tea and I'm going to knock this one out.
This one was one of the early days of Criterion. Criterion had already earned its reputation from its time with Laserdisc. It was already the arthouse home video release studio. But those early days, they had to accept a lot more than they would later. It's the reason that I have Ghostbusters on Criterion Laserdisc. I'm proud of that statement, by the way. But there ended up being this nice little sweet spot that Criterion is only starting to return to today. Those early days kind of lacked the pretention that some of those films got once they hit 100+. I'm not saying those movies aren't awesome, but the early days had stuff like Armageddon, RoboCop, and the Hong Kong films of John Woo. I had seen The Killer on LaserDisc. I don't have The Killer on Criterion DVD yet. But I did see that Hard Boiled was actually a reasonably priced OOP DVD, and it was one that I was missing. It sounds like I'm going to be really sweet on this movie, but I don't really think that I can be.
See, people preach John Woo before he came to America. While I agree that some of his American releases are quite weak, especially Mission: Impossible 2, I don't know if I find the same love that people have for the Hong Kong stuff. I mean, I wasn't floored by The Killer. It was fine, I guess. But Hard Boiled flustered me in the sense that I wasn't sure if the movie had too much story or too little story. The final takeaway is that the movie had too little story, but pretended that the story was rich and complicated. This is unfair of me, to a certain concern. There are smart people who could write a tome on Hard Boiled and the Hong Kong gun-fu of John Woo. I read the little pamphlet that came with it (before Criterion started releasing whole books of essays with their home releases). I mean, it sounded way smarter than anything than I have ever written here. But a lot of that comes from an understanding of cultural and historical context given to the movie in 1992.
For those people who remembered, I took a film noir class in grad school. We talked about the Hard-Boiled subgenre a bit in that and I can't deny that cultural and historical background really does give the movies in this genre more meat. They are way more than hardened cop films featuring protagonist swimming against a torrent of existential dread. But I don't know if Hard Boiled, the movie, necessarily has that intellect behind it. I just savaged The Band Wagon not that long ago for its deeply upsetting themes of philistinism. But I now realized what great / fun musicals have in common with the action genre. While there are high art musicals and there is high art action, both genres are propped up by the notion of spectacle. It's that wow factor, forcing audiences to ask how something on that scale was executed perfectly. Perhaps different gender stereotypes might react to these stunts differently. A well-choreographed fight scene and a well-choreographed tap number do the same things for me. (I'm very secure, as you can tell by the fact that I constantly state it insecurely.)
But, in my head, there also has to be a balance. Hard Boiled is first and foremost a stunt spectacular. Like the beginning of Police Story, Woo decides to cram as many insane stunts into a single sequence as possible. But it works better in Police Story for me because Police Story, until the final act, has a light and comedic tone to the film. Hard Boiled rarely tries telling jokes. Okay, that's not fair. A lot of people say that Hard Boiled is darkly and sadistically comic. I don't know if I agree with that one too much. Sure, the baby stuff is pretty great, but the movie really wants to stress that Tequila is a hardened cop. His name / nickname is actually Tequila, after all. We aren't given another name, so I have to refer to him as Tequila for the rest of this blog entry. But there's nothing at all tongue-in-cheek with Hard Boiled. If anything, it delights in being grim and bleak. Honestly, because it was 1992, it reads more like a Zack Snyder DC movie because everything in the early '90s was intense and raw. And there's where the movie loses me. It throws all of this spectacle at me and expects me to take it seriously.
And there's a point where the movie becomes...not fun. It gains that fun again with the baby sequence. But there is only so much death that you can handle before it becomes just filler. When action is the final goal, it just somehow becomes vapid. A fireworks spectacle can go on too long. The same kind of happens with Hard Boiled. Yeah, that stuntwork is genuinely very impressive. But when I find myself getting bored by people being mowed down by gunfire, something really went wrong. I know that Woo doesn't use his patented doves sequences in this one, but everything else feels just boring after a certain point.
And the thing that really bums me out is the treatment of women in these stories. I know, I'm really White Knighting yet again and I don't ever want to end up like Joss Whedon in 2021, but my goodness. Between Police Story and this, I can't help but wonder what the Hong Kong market wants out of the female character in action movies. With Police Story and its sequel, the girl was obsessed with the relationship over safety. She knew that she was dating a police officer, yet would regularly come across as shrewish because he was a jerk, yet we still related to him more than anything else. But this one, Teresa, Tequila's girlfriend, seems to hate him because she gets more flowers from someone else. When she is thrown into the fight, she instantly has to take the maternal role of taking care of the babies in the hospital? That's a bit on the nose, isn't it, movie? I mean, she thankfully has a moment where she fights a bad guy off. But it is the process of saving a bunch of adorable babies.
I suppose I should talk about the central theme. There's this story about an undercover cop who might be a saint or he might have been corrupted by a life of pretending to be a Triad. That's a cool notion, if I wasn't completely spoiled by The Departed. The movie focuses on Tequila because it's Chow Yun-Fat. Okay, but the story needed to be from Tony's perspective. Tony is the one who has the story that needed to be told. We never really get a lot of clarity on Tony's perspective because he's just allowed to talk about his frustrations versus having to see him experience them. Tequila actually has a surprisingly little investment in the case. Yeah, one of his fellow police officers dies while on a sting operation, but that would eventually be dwarfed by the hospital shoot out. But Tony actually makes sense to be the protagonist. He just keeps going through so much, but doesn't actually get to feel anything in the story because the movie is drowning in action. In the last ten, fifteen minutes, he accidentally kills a cop. He verbalizes his grief for the next two minutes and it seems like this is going to be his crisis of character. But that never really comes up again. Instead, the movie just keeps throwing tropes at the screen and buries these tropes under mounds of action.
Sometimes breathing out is a smart movie. I prefer depth, not width. While every single stunt looks rad in this movie, you could have had a quarter of the death, still had an impressive action movie, and developed some storylines. Instead, a lot of this seems like cool for cool's sake, and that's one of my least favorite things.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.