Even if you caught last year’s Hard Target — the Hollywood debut of action director John Woo — you may not be fully prepared for Hard Boiled, the Woo movie that preceded it (and is now being released on video for the first time). It isn’t just that more people are terminated in one scene alone than in most Arnold movies, or that heroes and villains alike share the philosophy that you can’t really kill someone without emptying an entire clip into him. It’s that no place is safe: People are gunned down in libraries and in hospitals. In Woo’s vision, it’s only a matter of time before havoc catches up with you.
It has clearly caught up with Tequila (baby-faced Chow Yun-Fat, a Woo regular), a Hong Kong cop pushed over the edge by the slaughter of his partner. Out for revenge, he joins up with a suave undercover cop (Tony Leung) to bring down the gang responsible. From that point on, much of Hard Boiled plays like a bloated version of Woo’s 1989 masterpiece, The Killer. Both feature male bonding between characters who start out on opposite sides, marginal female roles, a scene in which Yun-Fat saves a child (thereby redeeming his violent impulses), a standoff in a hospital, and a concluding hostage scene.
All this would be overkill if it weren’t for the fact that Woo’s use of freeze frame and slow motion serves to make Hard Boiled even more of an art-house action movie than any of its predecessors. When Tequila literally swings into the middle of a gang war, Woo’s majestic craft shines through; bodies lurch and fall with the precision of a ballet. Powerful scenes like that — or more subtle moments, as when Tequila wipes blood from a baby’s face after a massacre or a slow-motion close-up of a car-door handle being shot off — linger long after the videotape has ended. You’ll never think of mayhem in the same way again. B+