“Hard-Boiled” (1992) was John Woo’s most visually stylistic work – his last film before his departure to the USA. Some may see it as his port-folio film for Hollywood. As neither purely Hong Kong nor yet Hollywood, “Hard-Boiled” can tell us a lot about the distinctive characteristics of Woo’s film-making. The film draws its structure from combinations of film noir, gangster films and what used to be known as “pulp novels” or violent thrillers. In this movie, Woo showcases his credentials as a director in this genre, particularly in the climatic hospital shootout.
The film, moreover, fuses Hollywood action blockbuster and the detective genre with the buddy film and martial arts genre. Its violence must be understood in the socio-political context of the Tiananmen Square massacre and Hong Kong’s return to China – a situation over which the Hong Kong population had no controls, fueling anxieties and pent up frustrations. “Hard-Boiled” also sets out an additional response to Hong Kong’s return to China, namely relocation, echoing Woo’s own professional hopes of survival.
This theme is announced in the early tea-house scene, where hard-boiled cop Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) asks his partner Ah-Lung, “Have you ever considered emigrating?” Immediately thereafter, police launches a raid. Tequila losses his partner in this raid against a gun-smuggling ring headed by mobster Johnny Wong, who hides guns in birdcages and stashes his arsenal in a vault in the Maple hospital morgue. Driven to avenge, Ah-Lung’s death, Tequila encounters his counterpart Tony (Tony Leung), who only wanted to be an ordinary cop yet is employed as an undercover triad killer. After confrontations where they nearly kill each other, Tony and Tequila finally work together to defeat Johnny.
The themes of justice, revenge and doubling are established in the tea house fight. When Tequila shoots, the blood spurts over his own whitened face, underlining the viciousness of his own killing. In this and other instances, Tequila shows his resentment at being a cog in a big organization, expressing his own will against higher orders. Tequila’s alienation from the system is typical of Woo’s heroes. However, relationships of loyalty are crucial in Woo’s films.
Appearances deceive in “Hard-Boiled”: there are images of melancholia and loss underneath the violent kinetic surface. Ostensibly a ruthless assassin, Tony grieves for the people he kills, especially his former gangland boos Mr. Hoi, whom he respected. As a remorseful token for each killing, Tony makes paper cranes –symbols of transient life – which he hangs in his yacht and drops into water. Meanwhile, his opposite number, Tequila, writes and plays a song for every cop who is killed. Even Johnny’s ferocious henchman Mad Dog is guided by moral principles and challenges Johnny’s senseless killing of innocent bystanders at the hospital, reminding him that he is only after the cops and that there are certain lines one cannot across.
The pairing of Tequila and Tony has an intimacy that goes beyond buddy genre norms. In a gun-pointing sequence during a warehouse shootout, Tequila and Tony look into each other’s eyes; their aggressive gazes give way to something more like brotherly tenderness. In the hospital sequence, Woo uses a slow motion Steadicam point of view shot when Tony takes Tequila hostage as a ruse to fool Johnny’s men, underlining their teamwork.
As Tony and Tequila run down the hospital corridor, Woo positions them on opposite sides, making them continually cross places to underscore the doubling motif. At the climactic moment, Tony realizes – like Tequila before him – that he has a killed a cop by mistake. Here, Woo’s dramatic slow-motion emphasizes Tony’s shocked, belated reaction, with the camera dallying towards his collapsing victim and then back to Tony.
The sidelining of women in these male-bonding relationships is shown with Teresa, Tequila’s colleague and estranged girlfriend, who forms triangular relationships with the men. Despite sidelining female characters, Woo’s films are known to appeal to (some) women. This may be because they combine violent action with sentimentality and melodrama. This is not to say that women don’t also enjoy undiluted violent spectacle, but that Woo’s films offer certain pleasure to which women traditionally have been known to respond.
Additionally, Woo’s heroes have protective and caring attitudes to one another. This kind of male ‘mothering’ also appears in the relationship between Mr. White (Harvey Kietel) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) in “Reservoir Dogs”, a film indebted to Woo. That kind of motif, in Hard-Boiled, culminates at the hospital scene, where Tequila and Teresa try to save the countless babies left in the maternity ward.
In contrast to Woo’s Hollywood movies, heroes may die in Woo’s Hong Kong films. Tony redeems himself for his killings by sacrificing himself for Tequila. He is resurrected before the end credits. His yacht sails off into the horizon, with a voiceover repeating his wish to move to the North Pole. It matches the movement of spatial translation across the film and coincidentally matches the relocation motif of Woo, laying down the future possibilities of his emigration to USA (However, his measly successful Hollywood career is a whole other story).