The literal English translation of the original Chinese title for John Woo’s Hard Boiled is something like “Hot-Handed God Of Cops.” Which is entirely fitting, given the amount of carnage and violence that Chow Yun-Fat unleashes throughout the film (the film’s on-screen body count has been placed at 307). The final film that John Woo directed in Hong Kong before moving on to Hollywood in the early ’90s, Hard Boiled is often considered the definitive “heroic bloodshed” movie (though one could argue for Woo’s The Killer, as well).
Woo decided to bid fond farewell to HK cinema by pulling out all of the stops, and the film boasts some of the greatest action sequences ever committed to celluloid. In their recent article, “The Top 20 Movie Shootouts,” TwitchGuru put Hard Boiled’s extended hospital scene at #2. That’s certainly a fine scene, especially when Chow and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai take on a bunch of baddies in a single, gruelling shot that lasts almost three minutes.
However, I’ve always been partial to the opening teahouse scene, if only because it instantly sets the stage for things to come. It also introduces you to John Woo’s parallel universe, in which human bodies can survive countless bullet wounds, everything looks way cooler in super slow motion, guns never, ever run out of ammo, and a mere human being is transformed into a god as soon as they have a pistol in each hand.
While it’s easy to simply focus on the madcap, balls-to-the-wall action of the scene and overlook everything else, it’s worth noting that John Woo’s most bullet-riddled sequences are incredibly artistic. His ultra-violent action scenes are so, well, ultra-violent that they cease being realistic and become hyperreal and almost dance-like, especially when you throw in the slow-motion explosions and bursting squibs. And the inclusion of those seemingly random birdcage shots serves several purposes: they create an illusion of peace and normalcy while also ramping up the tension before the inevitable mayhem starts, and once it does start, they accentuate it even moreso as the birds hop up and down madly in their cages as the bullets fly about.
There are times when Hard Boiled, and many of Woo’s other classic films (The Killer, A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in the Head) seem incredibly trite, clichéd, and old-fashioned. But that’s only because so many people have ripped off Woo’s trademark HK style in the ensuing years (including Woo himself). But in the annals of action cinema, noone has done it better than Woo, and it’s doubtful anyone will, and scenes like this one are proof why.