"Hard Boiled"

John Woo's knockout cops-and-gangsters classic, plus a master class in Hong Kong action filmmaking.

Published June 23, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Hard Boiled"
Directed By John Woo
Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung Chiu Wai
Criterion Collection
With commentary by Woo and others, trailers to Woo's Hong Kong films, Woo's first student film and other material

It's a truism to say that an average Hong Kong actioner puts virtually all American work in the genre to shame; John Woo's balletic, thrilling, final Hong Kong film, the acclaimed "Hard Boiled," takes the idea even further. It's a triumph of intense, almost unendurable action, but it also delves more surely into, and is more cognizant of the ambiguity of, the action film's time-tested themes of virility, identity and humanity than all but the greatest American exercises in the genre. (Woo is best known to American audiences for the over-the-top "Face/Off" and the recent, relatively more controlled "M:i-2.")

It's emblematic of the tortured, unforgettable emotionalism of this film's tangled tale of cops and gangsters, undercover agents and bureaucrats, that halfway through the picture its confused star, Chow Yun-Fat, asks his boss, on behalf of both himself and the audience, "Who are the cops, who are the thieves? And why do you want us to kill each other?" And it's emblematic as well of Woo's uncompromising violence that while he abandoned as too tasteless his original story of a man who poisons children, the film ends with an apocalyptic carnage at a hospital, with gangsters mercilessly gunning down fleeing patients -- and a mad sociopath forcing a helpless Chow to publicly declare, "I am impotent!"

The Criterion Collection disc, typically bursting with information, is virtually a master class in Hong Kong action filmmaking. (It's out of print, but rentable.) The commentary, which features director Woo, critic Dave Kehr (an early Woo champion) and "Pulp Fiction" co-screenwriter (and director of "Killing Zoe") Roger Avary, gives you revelatory close readings of key scenes -- like a deceptively simple hit in a library -- and lots of pointers to the clues that reveal the themes of separation and alienation in Woo's work. (In one of the best moments, Avary explains the complexity of the film's famous teahouse shootout scene.) You'll come away with everything from a new appreciation of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville (whose "Le Samourai" is a key influence) to a sense of the problems involved in paying off real-life gangsters while trying to film in Hong Kong. Other features include Woo's first student film (which would be inexplicable even if it weren't silent with untranslated Chinese subtitles), and trailers for a dozen or so of Woo's Hong Kong movies. As a whole, the package is as good as it gets.

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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