Published on August 2nd, 2022 | by Douglas Rasmussen


The Criterion Cut: John Woo’s Hardboiled

In this installment of The Criterion Cut, we look at the film Hardboiled, the classic John Woo actioner, which is playing on the streamer’s site.

Between the years of 1986-1992 Hong Kong director John Woo made some of the most innovative action films in the genre. Woo’s distinct style of slow motion, freeze frames, two guns wielded by a single character, kung fu-like choreography of gunplay where characters would seemingly ‘punch’ their guns forward as if to heighten the impact, a seemingly endless supply of bullets, bodies being thrown back a meter or so by the impact, and most significantly, excessive blood spurting from bullet wounds (prior to Woo, a number of filmmakers, including Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, people just sort of fell down in a bloodless impact). Woo’s style would in fact be copied by numerous United States action filmmakers who attempted to appropriate it, but did so by slapping the stylistic iconography of Woo onto the typical stoic male action hero archetype. Woo’s protagonists, by contrast, were different not only because of the stylistic choices, but also because they were emotionally sensitive characters who were not afraid to cry, play jazz, or feel intense emotions.

Woo’s style began with A Better Tomorrow (1986), but only really gained traction with the international success of The Killer (1989). The Killer made the rounds on the festival circuit in 1990 as an X-rated feature owing to the excessive amount of blood and violence. Curiously enough, the movie would do better overseas than domestically. Producer Tsui Hark had even predicted it would be a box office failure, often trashing director Woo in interviews, only for the movie to obtain international success on a level that Hark would never achieve with his own movies. 

Made three years after the international success of The Killer, Hardboiled would reunite Woo with his former collaborator, actor Chow Yun Fat, who had starred in A Better Tomorrow 1 and 2, The Killer, and Hardboiled (I say former because the two had a falling out that led to Chow Yun Fat abandoning Woo’s historical epic Red Cliff). In this movie Chow Yun Fat plays an undercover police officer known only as ‘Tequila.’  The shift in protagonist roles from his usual gangsters to a cop occurred because Woo, and perhaps rightly so, received critical backlash for glamorizing Triad gangsters and hitmen in his previous efforts. 

In terms of the action Hardboiled is certainly one of the more stylistic films in Woo’s classic period before he went to Hollywood. The opening shootout in the tea house is essentially what most American action films would consider to be the action climax. The actual climax is an extended 40-minute shootout in a hospital that features some of Woo’s most elaborate choreography. If action is what you’re after, then I would highly recommend Hardboiled. 

As with many of Woo’s movies, Hardboiled subverts the American action idiom into a distinctly Hong Kong film structure. While Woo has always been a fan of American films (and in particular, American westerns and melodramas), his movies don’t follow the typical American context for an action hero. Woo dispenses with the stoicism and brave heroism evident in every American hero, from John Wayne to the supposed ‘everyman’ John McClane (Bruce Willis), who all follow a stereotypical action hero model. Hardboiled places that most stereotypical of action heroes, a cop, in brutal action scenes that wouldn’t appear in a mainstream American movie; hospital patients are gunned down in the final action scene, babies are placed in danger, criminals and cops find common ground, and villains showing more honor than some bureaucrats or head bosses, and so forth. 

Woo is interesting in that he began his stylistic innovation in the rough, somewhat uneven film A Better Tomorrow. After a disappointing sequel, as well as some experiments in between, then reaching peak success with Hardboiled and The Killer, Woo really hit his stride with these two movies from his classic Hong Kong period. Woo’s Hollywood films are largely forgettable and his return to China with Red Cliff was done well enough, but isn’t quite as unique and engaging as Hardboiled and The Killer. Nowadays he’s hard to find on DVD and these two films are the only ones available to stream, both exclusively on the Criterion channel. For those looking for pure action and spectacle, I would recommend a double bill of The Killer and Hardboiled

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About the Author

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earned his Master of Arts degree from the University of Saskatchewan, where he focused on film studies, media theory, and consuming as much free food as physically possible, earning quite the reputation for being the human equivalent of a chipmunk. He now spends his time writing, being perpetually stressed, reading Judge Dredd comics, and wondering how he managed to acquire so many Funko Pops despite a stated aversion to them.

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