Sunday, March 20, 2005

#9: Hard Boiled

Hard Boiled, 1992, directed by John Woo, screenplay by Barry Wong, story by John Woo.

Hard Boiled is about the way violence lurks just beneath the surface of our day-to-day life. The movie is set in Hong Kong, where guns are illegal. It opens with Chow Yun-Fat breaking up a gun deal in a teahouse. The guns in question are hidden in the bottom drawers of birdcages, which, this being a John Woo movie, means there are some slow-motion shots of birds trying to take off during the ensuing shootout. From that point on, we are shown again and again that the more innocent something seems, the more likely it is to be dangerous.

Some of the places guns are concealed in Hard Boiled:

  • Birdcages
  • The second volume of a complete set of Shakespeare in a public library
  • Welded inside cars
  • In a secret room off the morgue of a city hospital

The hospital is a particularly great touch. Woo had a standoff in a hospital in The Killer, but in Hard Boiled, the hospital is the climax of the movie, the site of a thirty minute gun battle. It's really genius to have the gun runners' cache be in the basement of a hospital; if I'm ever running guns (again) I will keep that in mind. But to characterize Hard Boiled as solely a portrait of a world where violence and betrayal permeate every aspect of life is to do it a disservice. It's also about stuff blowing up real good.

So how good does stuff blow up? Real good. Take the warehouse fight sequence halfway through the movie, for one example. A group of eight or nine killers on motorcycles tear into the place, shooting it up from moving bikes. The baddest of the badasses, a guy called Mad Dog, played by Philip Kwok, rides in on his bike at full speed, shooting at someone in front of him, then puts the bike into a skid, still shooting at the guy, steps off the moving, skidding bike, and in one motion stands up and shoots two more guys. There's a real stuntman doing this, it's not an effects shot. The movie's worth seeing for that shot alone.

The Killer had a simple geometric plot. Hard Boiled isn't so easily diagrammed. I suspect this is because Barry Wong, the screenwriter, died halfway through the shoot, before finishing the script, and no one knew where they wanted to go with it. Also, the opening sequence was shot when they had a completely different script, one in which Tony Leung's character was a psychotic who was poisoning babies' milk. No kidding. At some point Leung decided that wouldn't be the best career move for him, so his character was changed into an undercover cop, and the entire movie was rewritten. It's kind of amazing to me the plot makes any sense at all.

And it does make sense, more or less. It's at its best when showing how Leung is forced to betray more and more people to keep his cover. It's at its worst when focusing on the love story between Chow Yun-Fat and Teresa Mo, both cops.

Woo's directing is a little out of control in this movie; it's great for the action sequences. It's interesting seeing this right after The 400 Blows, because Woo clearly learned a lot from Truffaut. Perhaps a little too much; he has maybe ten 400 Blows-style freeze frames. Not all of them make sense dramatically, and the ones that do, the impact is lessened by how often the technique is used. Still, with a Woo movie, whatever else you say about it, you come back to staring slack-jawed at the action sequences. Which I encourage you all to do.

Randoms:

  • The DVD commentary track features Woo, Terence Chang, Dave Kehr (a critic), and... Roger Avery! Avery's commentary has a valuable lesson in it for anyone asked to record a commentary track: don't talk about a project that hasn't happened yet. Avery mentions "Hatchet Man," which he was writing at the time for John Woo to direct. The movie never happened; it was put into turnaround in 1995. (At New Line, actually; I asked around but there's no library of stuff that didn't get made, so the script isn't available). On the track, though, Avery talks about it like it's going to come out in a month or so from whenever you're listening to the commentary.

  • Also, it's not a good idea to talk about Joseph Campbell on commentary tracks. It just isn't.

  • At the end of the teahouse shootout that opens the movie, Chow Yun-Fat does a slide through a bag of flour, which coats his clothes, hair, and face. He then shoots a man in the head at point-blank range; the blood spatters on the flour, for a nice effect. Whoever designed the DVD menus called that chapter "Flour Power." Ouch.

  • John Woo's answering machine plays the music from Lawrence of Arabia.

  • Woo is very good at using his settings to suit whatever emotional beat he's trying to hit. He puts people in cramped quarters when they have to deal with each other, has Tony Leung betray his boss in a gigantic warehouse; this isn't any great observation, but it's something I noticed and I think I could do more often in my own writing.

  • There's a handheld camera shot in the hospital sequence that looks exactly like a first-person shooter; the same kind of tracking through the hospital. It's also a special effects masterpiece--it's about two-and-a-half minutes of action, with squbs, explosives, and elaborate choreography, and there aren't any cuts, it's just one shot. On the commentary, Woo says he decided to try to do that shot because he and his crew were getting bored.

  • The DVD also has trailers for all of John Woo's Hong Kong movies. They're worth watching; he did a Cantonese Opera movie at one point, and a lot of Kung Fu films. Including Countdown in Kung Fu, a very early (1976) Jackie Chan movie.

  • Dave Kehr's commentary is interesting; he talks about The Killer showing at midnight at Sundance and what that was like, and for the most part he's right on when talking about Woo's movies, at least the ones I've seen. The movie Dave Kehr is crazy about, though, I haven't seen. That's Bullet in the Head, which is a Vietnam movie. It looks good from the trailer; I'm going to check it out.
With this movie, I've now finished numbers 1–10 of the Criterion Collection. Next up will probably be Salò.

8 comments:

SCUD said...

Have you seen Bullet In The Head yet? If so, what did you think?

Matthew Dessem said...

Scud,

I haven't seen it yet, unfortunately--I'm having a hard enough time seeing the movies I want to see in theaters right now (finishing a screenplay & thus busy all the time). In January or February when the release schedule slows down and this script is done I'll be checking it out, though.

Matt

Anonymous said...

First: I love your blog. I am in the process of reading all of it (I just found it a few weeks ago).

Second: This is a fabulous idea: a "library of stuff that didn't get made". Someone out there should make it happen.

Just sayin'.

thanks,
camellia

John B. said...

Hard Boiled surprised me, Matthew. I expected The Killer, Part II, but everyone knows what happens when we assume.

You were on the mark in your discussion of The Killer when you wrote that violence isn’t as easily controlled as John Woo would have had us believe. Things do get messy, the good guys sometimes do shoot the wrong people, and life’s big questions don’t usually have pat answers. That is why, after several millennia of inquiry, they remain questions. Somewhere between filming The Killer and Hard Boiled, John Woo figured this all out

Woo’s love affair with his protagonist in The Killer seems naïve and slightly objectionable. A professional killer’s remorse after accidentally blinding an innocent bystander shouldn’t automatically negate a lifetime of brutality and doesn’t automatically make him worthy of our unabashed, doey-eyed adoration. In Hard Boiled morals come in shades of gray, and redemption isn’t easy. The worldview is less romantic, more (I’ll say it) hard-boiled.

Woo loves warning us that appearances can be deceptive, and my favorite example of this in Hard Boiled is a small moment when Alan, the undercover cop, dresses as a cop in order to pass himself off as an arms smuggler in the hospital shoot-out. Twisted, clever fun.

Fun. That’s the bottom line here, isn’t it? We can talk themes and morality, but Hard Boiled is really about the action, and the action is kickass. The three set pieces escalate from big to bigger to biggest keeping the excitement and tension mounting. And the rhythm within the action sequences was more varied and interesting in Hard Boiled than The Killer. The action in The Killer was a bit one-note. Judging from what I’ve read on the web, I’m in the minority when I say this, but Hard Boiled is the more complex, truthful, polished work. And it’s a lot of fun.

Given his mastery of the action film and his interest in the duality of man’s nature, I wonder that he was never tapped to direct one of the superhero adaptations. Seems he’d be a natural.

Matthew Dessem said...

Camellia,

Such a library would unfortunately be full of stuff that didn't get made for very good reasons. There's a yearly thing called the Blacklist that has the best unproduced specs of the year, though--that's a good place to start.

Matthew Dessem said...

John B.,

Agreed on all points. After reading your comments on The Killer, I wondered what you'd think of this film. And John Woo is certainly a more natural choice for a superhero film than, say, Ang Lee.

steve roberts said...

Couple of things I learned from watching a commentary track on a different version:

-I find it interesting that John Woo's samurai movies often have characters with two swords and then, when he does a gunplay movie, all the characters have two guns. Eeeeenteresting.
-Antony Wong is great in this. There is apparently a "Hard Boiled drinking game" where you take a shot each time Wong wears a different brightly colored jacket.

One thing struck me particularly as I was watching: the incredibly flawed concepts of heroism, or possibly anti-heroism, in this movie. As an undercover cop, Tony has to kill countless gangsters, including his old boss, Mr. Hoi. In pursuing the bad guys, Fat kills another undercover cop. In the climactic final battle, Tony kills a cop as well, one of Fat's assistants. IN all of these battles, countless innocents are killed. Johnny Wong infamously mows through several crippled and sick men and women in the hospital. But what are the "good guys" fighting for? It's clear that Tony and Chow don't like each other, and Tony seems to be selling his soul over and over in the movie, but it's unclear what he's actually interested in saving. This brings a level of reality to the picture, and it is expertly expressed by cinematographer Wing Hung Wong, whose emotional work reminds me of Dante Spinotti's work with Michael Mann, who seems to be interested in similar things.

Jenny said...

As an undercover cop, Tony has to kill countless gangsters, including his old boss, Mr. Hoi. In pursuing the bad guys, Fat kills another undercover cop. In the climactic final battle, Tony kills a cop as well, one of Fat's assistants. IN all of these battles, countless innocents are killed. Johnny Wong infamously mows through several crippled and sick men and women in the hospital. But what are the "good guys" fighting for? It's clear that Tony and Chow don't like each other, and Tony seems to be selling his soul over and over in the movie, but it's unclear what he's actually interested in saving