“Give the guy a gun and he’s a Superman. Give him two and he’s God.” This is the mantra of manhood that runs throughout John Woo’s best films, from the “outmoded” pop melodrama The Killer to the Travolta/Cage smackdown Face/Off. Before going Hollywood and subsequently going bust (see—or don’t see—Windtalkers and Paycheck), Woo made one last film in his native China that remains one of his finer moments. In Hard Boiled, Chow Yun-Fat stars as Yuen (alias Tequila), a police officer investigating a sinister arms ring. When his partner dies in an elaborate shoot-out, Tequila joins forces with a mysterious undercover agent, Alan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), in order to infiltrate mobster Johnny Wong’s secret lair tucked inside a hospital’s basement level.
A master stylist, Woo is similarly brilliant at examining the moral and social hierarchies of his patriarchal crime worlds, often casting his female protagonists as subversives (The Killer‘s perpetually panic-stricken blind woman exists to perpetuate collisions between bullets and all sorts of female signifiers, from tea to tears). What does it say about the men in Woo’s films that they’re only allowed to love each after unexamined male bonds have deteriorated? Because Yun-Fat’s characters in both The Killer and Hard Boiled confront the implications of their friendships to men only after they’ve lost partners (and subsequently found surrogate replacements), violence in Woo’s films becomes a kind of masochistic, homoerotic ritual—men use violence to destroy each other and love each other.
In Hard Boiled, Woo makes an art form out of creating deceptive surfaces. Sam Raimi has fairly compared Woo to Hitchcock, but I would argue that a comparison to Argento is more relevant (compare Hard Boiled‘s bloody library book-mark sequence to Tenebre‘s delirious misty bathroom set piece). “Are you somewhere feeling lonely or Someone loving you!” is the strange message Tequila’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, officer Teresa (Teresa Mo), receives at the police department with her latest bouquet of flowers. Are the flowers from Tequila or someone else? More importantly: Where’s the question mark? (We’re meant to notice the exclamation point.) This is Woo and screenwriter Barry Wong working overtime to “hard boil” the spectator and domesticize Tequila (by film’s end, Woo casts the cop as Alan’s best bud and a surrogate father to a “pisspot” newborn boy.)
Every image in the film has a visual double entendre, an encoded moral, romantic and social message. (Only after watching the film again did Woo’s interest in Windtalkers’ Navajo code breakers seem to make sense.) The undercover Alan communicates with the film’s police contingency via pop songs, flowers and love letters—masculine procedure is encoded in (and permitted by) femaleness. And just as Alan is undercover, so are the film’s flower boxes and steely, Feng Shui-less morgue containers. Everything is a ruse and no one is immune in Woo’s signature land of aesthetic confusion. Tequila isn’t really fishing in one scene early in the film—he’s just waiting to negotiate with a lowlife double agent, Foxy (Wei Tung). He catches a small fish while he waits, but that he throws it back says plenty about his character.
Woo’s characters are often unwittingly placed in uncomfortable situations with no apparent method of escape before they’re bounced deliriously and half-embarrassingly from one elaborate set piece to the next. Because there’s an intrinsic humor to the auteur’s rhythmic, unpredictable action poetry, I like to look at his films as Karaoke action melodramas. What distinguishes Hard Boiled from other Woo films is the symbiosis between movement and morality. The film’s audacious second half takes place almost entirely within the confines of a hospital, where Johnny Wong’s gang offs much of the patient population. The body count is ridiculously high. Gratuitous, yes, but an honest projection of male power and social relations. There’s a moral “quality” to the bloodshed that you won’t find in your average Hollywood action film.