“Could we ever be friends?”
That’s what Detective “Tequila” Yuen (Chow Yun-fat) asks undercover attorney Alan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), just minutes after snatching a gun from his hand at John Woo’s. hard boiled, released 30 years ago in Hong Kong this month. (It didn’t come to the US until a year later, when it made its US debut at the Sundance Film Festival.)
Like most films in Woo’s influential action oeuvre, Hard is about how even armed badass yearns for brotherhood. Finding an ally amid bloodshed and explosions is a constant theme in Woo’s work. His international breakthrough in 1989 The killer stars Chow as an assassin who partners with a police detective (Danny Lee) when his back is against the wall; its 1986 pioneer A better tomorrow (also co-starring Chow) is about literal brothers (Ti Lung, late Leslie Cheung) on opposite sides of the law, who eventually band together to defeat a greater threat.
The last Chinese language film Woo made in the 20th century before going to Hollywood (where he directed actors as bonkers as hard target, broken arrow and the glorious John Travolta / Nicolas Cage showdown Front/Offwhich celebrates its 25th anniversary this year), Hard was the filmmaker’s very explosive farewell to Hong Kong cinema. It’s another story of opposing characters forming a bond as bullets and bombs explode. Yes Killer is considered the coolest Woo movie (Hollywood once intended to remake it, with Richard Gere as assassin and Denzel Washington as cop) and tomorrow is his most revolutionary, then Hard is the most definitive of Woo’s action filmography. This crazy filmmaker pulls out all his arsenal to offer you a hell of a ride. (He even appears in a few scenes as a wise ex-cop turned bartender.) As screenwriter Abby Olcese said when she and her colleagues discussed the film in the first episode of Total massacre, “It’s the movie you tell your friends about…and the person you tell it to doesn’t believe you. And then you show them – and then they know.
It goes like this: After a shooting at a teahouse (where people bring their pet birds in cages, apparently) leaves his partner dead, Chow’s detective who breaks the rules and plays jazz embarks on the warpath, going after any triad gangster who gets rid of the blood police. Meanwhile, Leung’s deep-cover cop finds himself switching alliances with the underworld, moving closer to a power-crazed ringleader (Anthony Wong) who forces him to betray a fatherly boss (Kwan Hoi -san) and trying not to get lost in the darkness of it all.
Hard sees Woo (who came up with the story with screenwriter Barry Wong, who died of a heart attack before completing the screenplay) once again delve into the oh-so-fragile questions of honor and identity. And just like Killer and tomorrow, it features conflicted anti-hero protagonists trying to do what’s right, even if it means falling into great evil. While the cop on the edge of Chow (a character Chow would later revisit in a video game) sequel developed by Woo) protects his badge-wearing brothers by becoming a one-man killing machine, the tormented, undercover brother of Leung (a character originally developed as a psychopath who poisoned babies) would rather roam the people on his boat instead of sucking one more leaden guy. A look at Hard and you will immediately see where Martin Scorsese is The dead-and Hellish Affairsthe 2002 Hong Kong film on which it is based, picked up its pulpy, melodramatic theme of cops and criminals living double lives.
While Chow and Leung, two of the most charismatic matinee idols Hong Kong has ever produced, are both at their best, the show’s real stars are the action sequences, which are truly the model definition of mayhem. control. We’re talking about explosions, bodies filling up, flying 360 once they get shot, debris and shit falling all over the place – oh, it’s a beautiful balletic, bloodstained mess. If the teahouse shootout – with the iconic shot of Chow sliding down a ramp firing two guns – doesn’t get you, there’s the warehouse scene where Chow shows up with a shotgun and lots of bombs. smoke bombs, eliminating bad guys by himself. He annihilates some of them as they ride motorcycles.
But the film’s notorious centerpiece also makes up most of the second half. Chow and Leung team up and basically spend an hour taking down gangsters all over a hospital (where there’s a secret lair full of guns and explosions, next to the morgue). Both sides are literally doing serious damage, as the police try not to remove patients the criminals haven’t already wasted.
It’s here that Woo shows his talent for creating brilliantly orchestrated carnage. In a single take of bravery that lasts nearly three minutes, Chow and Leung fight their way through two floors of armed goons. In an interview in the 1997 book Hong Kong BabylonWoo said this scene, which took two days and “several hundred” rehearsals to shoot, was predictably complicated: “I almost gave up, but the team and the stunt group and the actor, they all want to try again. Finally, we made it. Hard reaches its over-the-top crescendo when Chow shoots more guys, jumps out the window, and narrowly avoids a myriad of exploding bombs, while holding a baby. In Babylon, Woo recalled how he nearly killed his star in that finale, personally giving the cue to set off the explosion when the stunt coordinator and special effects guy refused to do so with Chow still in the frame. (“Part of the explosion was pretty close to his body, and Chow Yun-fat was really executed for his life,” Woo said with a laugh.)
Hard is a burst of heroic bloodshed so gleefully gonzo, it’s screwed that this is yet another ’90s movie that you currently can’t find on any streaming service. In fact, both Hard and Killer— films that once had their own now-out-of-print Criterion Collection DVD nearly a quarter century ago — are stuck in a film rights limbo that makes them unavailable at the moment. As always, thank goodness for YouTube, where you can find a subtitled version.
Watching a movie that some have uploaded to a video-sharing platform may not look official. But if you want to see a real Hong Kong shoot-’em-up from a master – a movie that gives you the right amount of bullets, bombs and babies – get Hard shouldn’t be that hard.
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizle.