I can’t think of a movie with a better opening shot than Hard Boiled. A man pours a drink, downs it in one go, does a classic post-shot exhale, and all of a sudden pulls out a clarinet and starts to jam. On its face it’s a silly opening, but a no less electric one, a perfect establishment of the film’s typically John Woo tone. You can’t even really call it “absurdity” because for Woo, it’s all quite familiar territory. This is what you come to his films for, and Hard Boiled doesn’t disappoint.
I will say that I missed the homoerotic tension between Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee in The Killer, and that’s not least of the reasons that I think I prefer that film overall. Tony Leung has terrific chemistry with Chow, but it’s missing the spark between him and Lee in Woo’s other film. Part of it, I think, is that Hard Boiled loses the cop/criminal dichotomy that made The Killer so exciting. In Hard Boiled, both men are cops, though one spends much of the film undercover and the two have to play at being enemies. It lacks that inherently tense dynamic of two men whose similarities and bond belie their opposing positions on “the law.”
It’s still a fun movie, of course. The action is far more heightened than The Killer, with more wild stunts and expressive images. Chow’s face totally caked in white dust, suddenly splashed with bright red blood. Blood seeping around the edges of a book and leaving perfect right-angled stains on a library table. Blood splattering against a sterile hospital window. Really it’s just a whole lot of blood, when you get down to it. Woo really understands the dramatic potential of the stuff in a way so many gorehound directors don’t. His blood is so striking because of how he uses it in clever juxtapositions with clean and serene settings. There’s nothing grimy or gritty about the world of a Woo film, just the actions of the people who live in it.
As I said, I prefer The Killer for certain elements, but Hard Boiled is just an absolute blast. Woo once said that while critics loved The Killer because “it mixed the action with the art,” it was “movie lovers” who adored Hard Boiled. I wish I could quibble with that assessment! I like the latter film quite a bit anyway. It’s just the tiniest bit of a comedown.