The Hong-Kong classics seem to rarely receive the respect that they really deserve in the west. Most people know of them, some people enjoy watching them, but because of their sometimes over-the-top action, I think people don't take them very seriously as movies. Action movies in general tend to be seen more as escapist entertainment instead of genuine entries into film canon, as if they are somehow below the more dramatic pieces. While I do understand this mindset, I feel that it is one that leads to classics like Hard-Boiled being completely looked over. Not only is it an action movie, it's a Hong-Kong action movie, even more difficult to stomach for western audiences who are allergic in every way to having to read subtitles. This film has great depth to it though, and some of the most entertaining action sequences I've ever seen in any movie.
The basic plot of the movie is a somewhat familiar one. An undercover cop has infiltrated the Triads, and a loose cannon cop in the department butts heads with him early on, which leads to them attempting to work together in the second half. The main character is played by none other than Chow Yun-Fat, one of Woo's favorite actors to work with, and as Inspector "Tequila" Yuen, he becomes his most well-known persona. The opening scene starts us off with a gun fight in a crowded restaurant, as Tequila attempts to break up an arms deal in the middle of public. Woo alternates between chaotic, wide shots that are nearly impossible to keep track of, and closer, slow motion shots to emphasize a kill or a close call. This sounds somewhat obnoxious, drawing comparisons with exactly the wrong kinds of directors, but Woo is in a different league than them. It's difficult to write about action scenes, especially ones like Woo's, but if I had to use a single word, it would have to be this: stylish. Hard Boiled is a movie that seemed crazy exciting at the time, but it's influence has been so widespread that we may tend to see it as similar to action movies we watch today. Movies have completely embraced the style of gunplay that Woo popularized, still showing up in movies like John Wick to this day, but Hard Boiled still has something that none of these copies or homages have. It is simply, just impossibly cool.
This style is shown off best in the latter half of the movie. From the moment they enter the hospital to the very ending is pure fun in cinematic form. There's plenty of set-up, with Tequila and Long (the undercover cop) finally working together as they discover the information that the hospital itself is simply a front, and the entire Triad's store of arms is in the basement. I'm glossing over the plot details here, but I do need to mention that the plot in this movie is part of it's exhilarating charm. There's nothing wrong exactly with a movie being nothing more than a vehicle for action scenes (as 2011's The Raid shows us very clearly), but part of a Woo flick is the plot being a perfect build-up for the action. The crazy, balls to the wall, 40 minute long action sequence taking place int he latter half of the movie is that much more fun because at this point we're invested in these characters and we know exactly how cool they both are. Tequila and Long working together is that much more fun because of who they are, and because of the satisfaction of seeing them finally together, working towards a singular goal. Even without that though, the hospital scenes in this movie are a non-stop adrenaline rush. Our protagonists use everything in their environment to their advantage, sliding along on rolling hospital beds, gunning down everyone they see, taking the bad guys outfits to blend in before unloading on a group of unsuspecting Triad members, diving through windows guns blazing, you name it. Woo isn't afraid to embrace the pure movie-ness of it all, and that is where his strengths lie. Some directors do their best to make the audience forget that they're watching a movie with their camerawork, but here, we're reveling in the unrealistic cinematic flair, the slo-mo shots, the tracking shots, the pure action thrill.
Even as a member of a modern day audience, I found Hard Boiled to be a blast. It wasn't the revelation that it was to audiences of the time, since movies like The Matrix have been released since then, but on it's own merits, Hard Boiled is an instant classic. Any time you're looking to just have a great time watching a movie, this should be your pick.