Hard Boiled <辣手神探> may have been 30 years old this year. But this John Woo’s action masterpiece still packs a wallop no matter how many times I revisited this movie.
The story — credited to the late Barry Wong, who died a year before the release due to a heart attack at the age of 44 — is actually simple enough: Inspector “Tequila” Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat) is a dedicated cop who doesn’t play by the rules.
After causing his partner’s (Bowie Lam) death during a messy teahouse raid involving a gang of gunrunners, his superior (Philip Chan) subsequently tried to re-assign him with another case. But Tequila insisted to keep on investigating the gun-running case, which in turn, has to do with the triad boss Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong).
Johnny, in the meantime, recruits Alan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) as one of his main right-hand men. However, Alan also turns out to be an undercover cop who’s been trying to infiltrate the gang for years. His undercover operation hits a snag when he crosses paths with Tequila. They eventually join forces to take down Johnny and his gang.
Compared to Woo’s earlier works like A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色> (1986) and Bullet In The Head <喋血街頭> (1990), Hard Boiled <辣手神探> lacks both dramatic and narrative prowess of the aforementioned former movies. It does, however, manage to compensate with the economical storytelling approach that wastes little time getting to the point. It also helps that the movie is briskly paced with enough action to keep you occupied.
Besides, it was the action sequences that made Hard Boiled <辣手神探> such a compulsively watchable movie. The opening teahouse shootout scene alone is a prime example of what a terrific HK action cinema should be. It was unapologetically violent, visceral and stylish as we see Chow Yun-Fat’s Tequila takes down the ruthless gang of gunrunners. At one point, there’s an unforgettable moment where he slides down the handrail of a long staircase while gunning down two of the gunrunners trying to escape the building with two guns.
That aforementioned moment was actually Woo’s idea when he and his crew first visited the teahouse. Upon learning the teahouse was going to be demolished around a week’s time, he quickly came up with a whole action scene. And this happened before a script was even written at the time. Speaking of the script, it was initially about a psychopath who poisons babies and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai was even cast for the role. Worried that such a role may taint his image, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s original role was later rewritten as a triad assassin/undercover cop role. The original script was even scrapped in favour of the story that we get to see in the cinema.
Hard Boiled <辣手神探> is also notable for its climactic third act set in the (fictional) Maple Group Hospital (the hospital setting was actually filmed in an abandoned Coca-Cola factory). Here, Woo certainly goes all out with a series of elaborately-choreographed gunfights. There’s even a scene where Woo made excellent use of Steadicam shot as we follow Tequila and Alan entering the hospital corridor shooting the bad guys and later, into an elevator heading to the next floor for another gunfight.
Chow Yun-Fat is coolly charismatic as the trigger-happy cop, Inspector “Tequila” Yuen. According to John Woo during an interview, his role was modelled after Clint Eastwood’s iconic role of Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry movies. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai almost steals the show in his dual role as the conflicted triad assassin/undercover cop. It was one of his most memorable performances to date, where he earned a Hong Kong Film Awards nomination for Best Supporting Actor, even though he lost to Liu Kai-Chi for Cageman <籠民>.
Interestingly enough, Tony wasn’t happy with the nomination because he believed it was a leading role that he played in the movie rather than a supporting character. John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat even supported the unfair and misjudged nomination that he got at the time — a result that prompted the Hong Kong Film Awards to change the rule of its nomination system. The movie only won a single award in the Best Film Editing category and the fact that it didn’t get shortlisted as one of the Best Action Direction nominees was truly baffling. And if you must know, Yuen Woo-Ping won that category for Once Upon A Time In China II <黃飛鴻之二男兒當自強>.
Anthony Wong’s role as the fearsome triad boss, Johnny Wong is equally worth mentioning here, even though I find it awkward that his original voice was unfortunately dubbed in this movie. Philip Chan and Teresa Mo, where the latter plays the police madam and Tequila’s girlfriend both deliver solid support.
Philip Kwok, who is also responsible for the movie’s action choreography, shows up in an unforgettable antagonist role as Johnny’s top right-hand man nicknamed Mad Dog. His character wasn’t originally in the script but John Woo, who was very impressed with his action choreography, ended up creating one for him as a token of appreciation. Philip Kwok’s role was reportedly modelled after Alain Delon in Le Samourai (1967).
The movie also featured some of TVB actors’ earlier roles including Bowie Lam, Kenny Wong Tak-Ban (who played one of Johnny Wong’s thugs) and Bobby Au in his first feature-length role as one of the cops. Hard Boiled <辣手神探> made HK$19.7 million at the Hong Kong box office during its original theatrical run, ranking at No. 17 in the 1992 Hong Kong box office.
Hard Boiled <辣手神探> turns out to be Woo’s last pure Hong Kong movie before he decided to try his luck in Hollywood, resulting in movies like Hard Target (1993), Face/Off (1997) and Mission: Impossible II (2000). At the time of writing, Woo is currently filming a new Hollywood movie called Silent Night, which starred Joel Kinnaman as a father seeking vengeance for his son’s death.