John Woo’s Hard Boiled is an exceptionally violent film. I can think of no Hollywood film to serve as a good parallel for it, and though there might indeed be a movie out there with a body count as high as Hard Boiled’s, I’d hazard a guess that it simply wouldn’t be as rich as Woo’s effort. Woo is one of the few directors that could make a film like Hard Boiled palatable. Given the same script, Takeshi Kitano—a renowned Japanese filmmaker who is also known for making violent pictures, though with very different intent from Woo’s—might also provide an interesting take, but he likely wouldn’t bring the fluidity and grace that makes Hard Boiled so compelling. Most action films are intended as pure entertainment, and Hard Boiled provides that in spades, but it also demonstrates something that we’re not used to seeing in a boilerplate action flick: Hard Boiled is a masterclass in artistry.
Pared down to its essentials, Hard Boiled is a carousel of bloody action sequences. In fact, it is not dissimilar to pornography, and I certainly don’t intend that analogy as an affront to the film. It is simply the case that the action utterly overwhelms the story; it feels as if more time is spent fighting than talking, something which isn’t true of most action films, not even with the likes of Predator (which we discussed last week). (After a very quick count, I found that approximately half of the film—between fifty minutes to an hour—could be described as ‘pure action,’ owing largely to the long final act in the hospital that is mostly fighting. That 50/50 split between action and exposition is more even than most other action films. Perhaps the best example of the opposite approach is Die Hard which, despite being revered as one of the greatest action films of all time, actually contains little action, something like fifteen to twenty minutes of its two-hour running time.) Some critics have placed importance on Hard Boiled’s story, and while it’s not quite the case that the story exists only to justify the action—for instance, scholars have pointed out that the tension between gangs and the police depicted in the film is a critique of how things were in Hong Kong at that time—I’m not entirely convinced that Woo is giving us a consequential narrative that he expects us to really engage with.
Markedly more interesting to me is the way in which Woo films violence. Hard Boiled is a veritable assault on the senses. The soundtrack is loud, peppered with gunshots and explosions and cries and a seemingly permanent musical accompaniment in the background. There is also a tremendous amount of blood. One scene is typical of Woo’s approach. A man is shot in the head; while we don’t see the bullet’s impact we are shown a spray of blood on the floor, and then a quick shot of the head wound, and then a growing puddle of blood on a table where the man’s head rests. The camera lingers as the blood pools up, and we can actually see it flowing across the table. This is not gratuitous on Woo’s part. He wants the action to astonish the audience, and in order to astonish rather than horrify he focuses on the effects of violence, not on the violence itself. Rather than train the camera on the head wound, he shows us a growing pool of blood; later, when the heroes are mowing down enemies left, right and center in the corridors of a hospital, we’re almost never shown a dead body. Instead, gunshots send people across the camera like ragdolls. We see bodies careen across the floor, fly through windows, and smash against walls, tables, and other props.
Woo never lets the reality of what we’re seeing sink in. Consider that if the camera were to focus on a wound or on a body for too long, the film would essentially grind to a halt. Real violence—gaping wounds, disfigured corpses—has the effect of silencing a film. Seconds of that imagery is enough to turn a light-hearted action romp into a grim and morose picture. ‘Serious’ violence serves to kill a film’s momentum, so Woo almost avoids it entirely, save for a few passing frames that are thinly dispersed. I hesitate to go so far as to say the violence in Hard Boiled is cartoony, but it is true that while Woo shows us a lot, we rarely see anything: the actual killing happens too quickly to register in our minds, and the film’s most memorable action shots are separate from actual bloodshed (like slow-motion shots of the protagonist diving through the air while firing a shotgun, or the protagonist running from a building as it bursts in flames behind him).
Here’s a video with a clip from John Woo’s Hard Boiled, and a clip from Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks (called “Hana-Bi” internationally). The differences in pacing and tone are readily apparent. Woo’s shot length is short, while Kitano’s shot length is considerably longer. Both directors use slow-motion, but while Woo uses it to impress us, Kitano uses it to show us things we don’t really want to see, and to burn the harshness of the violence into our mind’s eye.
By not lingering on death as a director like Takeshi Kitano does, Woo presents a film that is exciting and enjoyable—a remarkable achievement if you consider the amount of killing and the various causes of death depicted in the film (including somebody being shot through their eye). Indeed, one could make the argument that the Bizarro world Woo’s characters inhabit lends to the fun. Woo’s disrespect for reality is, in a word, brazen. If it doesn’t hit a body, a bullet hits an object and shoots out a miasma of sparks. Cars explode when shot one or two times. The impact from a 9mm round is enough to propel a body back five or six feet. Characters can squeeze off hundreds of rounds without reloading, but inexplicably run out of bullets when the antagonist sidles up on them. And our heroes shrug off close-range shotgun blasts with no trouble. This is nothing but good old fashioned action. When it comes to putting on a show, few can better Hard Boiled.
While any director can throw men and guns together and make an action film, most will fail to do the most important thing that John Woo manages in Hard Boiled: make the action artistic. This is what separates Woo’s film from others. Some have likened the action to a dance; others have called it “zen-like.” In essence, Woo ensures that his action is meaningful. When characters “dance” by leaping through the air or rolling or sliding away, it’s because the director wants to accomplish something—maybe he wants to set up an impressive camera shot, or maybe he wants to put the character in a good position for the next phase of the set piece. It’s appropriate to say Hard Boiled is “choreographed,” because it’s clear that Woo has thought out the consequences of each camera shot and of every move that a character makes. The product of all that planning is a thing of legitimate beauty.
Woo’s action choreography had a major impact on Western filmmaking. Much of the traditional action imagery we’re familiar with was entrenched in the genre by Hard Boiled. When characters dive through the air and fire their weapon, it’s almost certainly a callback to Chow Yun-Fat’s showcase in this film; when characters dart from cover to cover, it’s almost certainly influenced by Woo’s frenetic pacing; when a film abuses slow motion, it’s almost certainly echoing Woo’s inclination to film all action at half speed; when characters run towards the camera away from a burning/exploding building, it’s almost certainly the result of one of Hard Boiled’s final scenes. To say that Hard Boiled is an absolute staple in the action genre is self-evident, and it is more than that; it is the genesis of many of the Western action films we adore. It is not just a fine film—it is now important as a touchstone of the action genre.
It is very much a “career work” that few will ever match, and that probably includes Woo himself. Next we’ll look at another John Woo film, this one enjoying its fifteenth anniversary: Face/Off. Be sure to watch it and join in the discussion in a week.