Hard Boiled Collector's Edition Review
Another year, another Tartan release of Hard Boiled, or so it seems. After the original, rather disappointing dubbed release of John Woo’s seminal gunplay classic, followed up by the equally mediocre “uncut” release, with all of about 5 seconds or so of new footage, let’s hope it’s third time lucky for the company. I have to say, I didn’t exactly get my hopes up too high. For a start, Tartan’s last two major “Collector Edition” updates of titles in their catalogue, Audition and The Eye hardly contained enough improvements to warrant the re-release. Also, it’s not exactly reassuring that Tartan have kept the same old, tired, “Chow Yun-Fat with shotgun and baby” artwork for every single one of the releases.
A firm favourite of Hong Kong cinema-philes and action lovers alike, Hard Boiled ensured that both director John Woo, and a couple of years later leading actor Chow Yun-Fat, marked their transition to Hollywood with a high note.
The film begins with Chow Yun-Fat, who plays impulsive cop Tequila, laying down some tunes with his saxophone. Certainly a nice change from hearing melodramatic Canto-pop, which introduces so many of Woo’s films, and the detached jazz sound establishes the style and atmosphere right from the beginning. From this brief introduction it cuts to Tequila and another cop in an old-fashioned Chinese teahouse, complete with assorted birds in cages. The two sit there observing a few shady individuals a few tables across from them, who they suspect of being arms dealers. Their suspicions prove to be correct, and they go to make the arrest, leading on to…
…the first of the film’s many spectacular, meticulously choreographed shootouts. The action takes us throughout the building, over and under various pieces of furniture, up and down stairs, and never once does Chow, toothpick in mouth, stop firing his trademark akimbo pistols. Unfortunately for Tequila, amidst the chaos, and no thanks to the trigger-happy gangsters, more than a few innocent bystanders get shot, which leads to the police chief getting rather angry with him. A rather clichéd exchange follows between the chief concerned about the image the amount of casualties will create, and Tequila angry that he’s the one being criticised when his boss stays behind the desk, out of danger.
Shortly afterwards we’re introduced to Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in the film’s most important and interesting role. Leung, still a relatively unfamiliar actor at the time, at that point having starred in only two major films, John Woo’s Vietnam epic Bullet in the Head and Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild, plays undercover cop Tony, a role with which he’s no doubt very familiar by now. He works for, and rather quickly moves up the ranks in, a respected and old-fashioned gang, led by the harmless Mr. Hui. However, he’s given the chance to join a radically different, violent, arms-dealing gang led by Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong). If he wants to obtain the chance to take them down, then he must first prove himself to them, even if this means putting his old friends out of action.
After the police learn of an assassination in a library, Tequila starts investigating and soon finds himself on the trail of Tony. This leads him to a warehouse, full with illegal firearms and weapons. He takes his position near the roof of the warehouse, and waits for his opportunity to take on the gang single-handedly; a one-man army.
Before he gets the chance, Johnny Wong’s gang storms the warehouse, killing all the workers mercilessly, led by the extreme ‘Mad Dog’ (Philip Kwok), who lives up to his name and notches up a rather impressive body count. Then Mr Hui himself enters the warehouse accompanied by his loyal friends. Before he gets a chance to truly take in the horror of what has happened, Johnny Wong forces Tony to choose between the two gangs. Troubled by the choice, he ends up deciding to sacrifice his morals, and Mr Hui’s gang, in order to gain the chance to work for, and eventually kill, Johnny Wong.
After that semi-massacre, the next major ‘set piece’ of the film comes in the form of a rather more two-sided shootout, still in the warehouse. Taking no chances, Tequila dons a Kevlar vest, and arms himself literally to the teeth, with sub-machine gun in hand, shotgun strapped across his back, and of course concealing two pistols and a liberal supply of ammo. From his vantage spot, high up near the roof of the warehouse, where it would seem he’s been waiting for a fair while, he starts throwing down smoke grenades on the unsuspecting gang. He then descends gracefully whilst spraying his MP5 in the general direction of the abundant number of criminals. When his clip runs out he discards the weapon (it appears that Woo doesn’t particularly like fully automatics…), and takes out his rather impressive pump-action shotgun, which he immediately starts using to great effect, sending the enemies flying in typical over-enthusiastic-Woo-stuntmen manner. This scene ends with only two people left in the entire warehouse, Tony and Tequila, and both with a gun to each other’s head. Neither shoot: Tequila because he’s out of bullets, and Tony because he can’t shoot a cop.
Now that he’s realised that Tony’s undercover, Tequila pays him a visit on his yacht. However it’s not long before they’re joined by several gun-toting gang members angry with Tony for his betrayal. Tequila helps Tony dispatch of them, establishing a fairly edgy companionship that will last between the two as they work together to try and eliminate Johnny Wong.
The film’s spectacular finale, the hospital shootout, is quite simply genius. Say what you want about Woo, he sure has his fair share of flaws, but by god can this man direct a gunfight. Instead of a simple shootout, these last scenes are nothing short of a war. There are individual battles, rivalries develop, characters’ relationships change, and it tells as much a story in itself as the rest of the movie. Once again, the action spills everywhere, from the patients’ rooms, to the arms warehouse in the basement, and up and down the various storeys. On more than one occasion, Tequila and Tony must put aside their differences and co-operate in order to pass the various obstacles and foes that present themselves, before finally splitting up to accomplish their separate goals. Tony goes after Johnny Wong, and encounters Mad Dog. What follows is a breathtaking display of filming, from a single camera, as it follows the two as they desperately try to outdo one another. Meanwhile, Tequila heads off to help Teresa lift the babies to safety. After some minor challenges, only one baby is left, but there’s no time to send him down from the window as explosions start to go off, signalling that Johnny’s detonated the bombs. An interesting note about this segment – John Woo, striving for realism in all the wrong places as always, sped up the speed at which the explosions went off without telling Chow Yun-Fat, who was left literally running for his life… well, at least to avoid any more burns like the ones he sustained during the filming of Full Contact.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Woo film without a final showdown between at least one of the protagonists and the main villain, and Hard Boiled is certainly no exception. Without going as far as to spoil it, I can say that it does provide a satisfying, if slightly predictable, conclusion.
Give a guy a gun, he thinks he’s Superman. Give him two and he thinks he’s God.
The two lead actors are superb, which is hardly surprising when you take two of, if not the two best actors in Hong Kong cinema at the time (and arguably even now). Although he has perhaps the slightly easier role, Chow Yun-Fat has never looked as impressive as he does in Hard Boiled. With all of his familiar ‘trademarks’ from previous films, toothpick in mouth, akimbo handguns, et al, as well as a great character that suits him perfectly – the disillusioned cop with a heart – he is the epitome of, well… for want of a better term, cool. Charismatic as ever, and with an evident sensitive side that has endeared him to audiences worldwide, he doesn’t miss a beat.
Never one to be topped, Leung excels as origami-expert Tony, making sure viewers are always on his side, even after seeing him doing some morally questionable things during his time undercover as part of the criminal gang. His subtle expressions and emotions are moving, and he even does well with some very ‘iffy’ lines of dialogue from Woo, the George Lucas of Hong Kong, although perhaps can’t quite prevent a certain line (think ‘Antarctica’, ’24 hours sunlight’, and ‘darkness of my life’) from sounding unbearably cheesy. But then I don’t think anybody could. On the plus side, the translation of the dialogue in this set of subtitles is much better: more fluent and less stiff than those in previous versions.
Whilst Teresa Mo isn’t a particularly exceptional actress by any means, her character is a refreshing change for those tired of Woo’s affinity for helpless females. Although some of her actions aren’t particularly clever, like slapping one of the gangsters when she’s meant to be protecting babies, it’s certainly very refreshing to see her taking some sort of action. In contrast, the normally excellent Anthony Wong puts out an average performance at best as panto-esque villain Johnny Wong. Anthony Wong was said to have expressed his dissatisfaction to Woo at playing such a one-dimensional character, but as shown by the plot, it doesn’t seem like Woo paid too much attention. This would certainly explain Wong’s unusually soulless acting, as it doesn’t look like he put much effort into the role at all, seemingly not caring about creating an ‘evil’ persona, delivering his lines with style, or the (admittedly few) other aspects of the character.
Hard Boiled is definitely a benchmark for all action movies, but possibly because of the language barrier, rather than comparing any Hollywood action films to it, the most common comparison seems to be between it, and another of Woo’s classic bullet ballet films, The Killer. There’s not much that can be said about either song that hasn’t already been analysed in depth by HK / Asian Film critics, so I thought I’d explain why, of the two, I personally prefer Hard Boiled.
Firstly, in my opinion, Danny Lee is not a particularly great, or even good, actor, and I can’t help but feel that his supporting performance in The Killer doesn’t deserve the high praise it often gets. His acting is for the most part very average, although I admit that there are some very nice moments of interaction between him and Chow. A fairly minor thing, but he consistently overacts during the gunfights, jumping from his pistol’s recoil almost as much as the people he shoots, and unfortunately, it doesn’t make a nice contrast to Chow’s comparatively relaxed method, it just looks awkward. And then comparing him to Tony Leung, it's clear that they're leagues apart.
Many people prefer The Killer because of its apparently more accomplished plot. Personally, other than the wonderfully tragic Shakespearian ending, the melodrama is piled on with so little subtlety that it doesn’t add anything to the film. The love affair is bland and uninteresting, and I would’ve loved to see some sort of actual rivalry or jealously between Chow and Danny’s characters maintained until the end. Overall, two films with their fair share of similarities, just a very different atmosphere in each, and I might well be in a minority here, but I’ll pick Hard Boiled every time.
For this DVD, Tartan digitally remastered the film from a low-contrast 35mm print, the same process that Criterion use for many of their titles. Although I’m not able to compare the two releases, having never seen the transfer on the now out-of-print Criterion DVD, I can easily say that this is the best I’ve seen the film look, superior to both the previous Tartan release(s) and the Mei Ah Hong Kong DVD.
Although there does not appear to be a huge improvement for the first twenty minutes or so, the quality of the transfer gets better and better towards the end. I’m not quite sure why this is, but knowing the notoriously bad conditions that Chinese prints are stored in, it could just simply be that the beginning of the print has picked up more wear and tear over the years than the rest of it.
It’s sharp throughout, and the lack of print damage is astounding. Colour levels are consistently accurate throughout, and the transfer copes very well with the darker scenes, as well as the blue hue often present. Edge enhancement is minimal, and excessive amounts of grain and noise never occur. One flaw I found was that for some reason the top and bottom right hand corners were rounded off, rather than being sharp corners. Whilst I did not find it particularly noticeable, it might be more of a problem on larger TVs or projections. Minor faults aside, the transfer is very pleasing, especially in the latter half of the film.
Below is a comparison of screenshots between this Collector’s Edition release, and the previous Tartan release:
Tartan Previous Release:
Tartan Collector's Edition:
Tartan Previous Release:
Tartan Collector's Edition:
Tartan Previous Release:
Tartan Collector's Edition:
As you can see, the print new release is far, far superior. It’s more detailed, never too dark or too light, skin tones are accurate, and it doesn't suffer from over-saturation.
Click here for a comparison to the Mei-Ah Remastered Release (Many thanks to Dave Foster)
Tartan have included no less than 5 different soundtracks, a generous selection that includes the original Cantonese language track available in DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono, as well as an English dub in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and 1.0 Mono. The English subtitles are translated well, and are removable.
Both the DTS and the DD5.1 soundtracks are good, but the DTS has the edge in the film’s many gunfights, with gunshots and explosions sounding much more dynamic, and it generally delivers more impact. Dialogue is also slightly higher in the mix and clearer in the DTS track. In both tracks rear speakers are occasionally rather underused and underpowered, but they deliver when it matters, with bullets crashing all around you during the action scenes. If you can’t play surround sound tracks, then all is not lost, as the Mono track isn’t that bad. Unsurprisingly it’s not nearly as powerful, but it’s as good as can be expected.
Never one to be known for extras, it doesn’t look like Tartan will be dismissing that reputation any time soon. All that’s present on a disc is an Original Theatrical Trailer (2’55”), which those who own the previous release will most likely have already seen. This is really quite disappointing, as the Interview With John Woo, as well as other trailers, filmographies and stills from the previous release haven’t been carried forward to this release. Truth be told, you won’t be missing much if you don’t own the previous release, but it still comes off as a little lazy on Tartan’s part.
Hard Boiled is one of the true classics of Hong Kong cinema and the bullet ballet genre, with the highest body count in any film to date, and stunningly choreographed gunfights that have yet to be bettered. Some might be put off by the lack of humanity in certain scenes (relative to American films especially), with many innocent people dying, but others will welcome the distinctly cold atmosphere. And then, of course, there’s the sublime acting between the two leads, played by two of the best actors in the world today. Fans will welcome the superior audio-visual quality presented on this new release, but the lack of extras means that the “Collector’s Edition” label doesn’t quite seem justifiable.