John Woo’s Hong Kong films of the late 80’s and early 90’s are action flicks of the highest order. Like late Sergio Leone, his are affairs of almost mythic scope, tuned to the archetypes and central themes of their genre. Woo loves to dramatize the conflict of values through the confrontation of a character with their double. Hard Boiled counterpoints Chow Yun-Fat, the hedonistic no-fucks-given supercop with a penchant for jazz and firewater, against Tony Leung, the deep-cover policeman who has transgressed his own values in the course of his assignment, who decorates his houseboat with Secessionist artwork and folds a paper crane for each man he kills, an indicator of his desire for spiritual transcendence. Their rivalry, camaraderie, and not-so-subtle homoerotic flirtation is set amid a conflict between a traditional Triad family and a new, globalized criminal organization whose fashions tend toward Scarface-influenced pizzaz– a clash of traditional values (loyalty, family, care for the infirm) against the ruthlessness of capitalist individualism. For all its dopey philosophizing, the core question of Hard Boiled is a relevant one: what is the right way to live? The film climaxes with the truly unscrupulous villain gloating over the emergence of the ostensibly devil-may-care hard-boiled cop’s innate ethos, which appears like “a small emergent rock in the waste of waters, the bottomless grey expanse of straightness.” Considering the implications of the film’s final images, I think back to Henry James once more:
“This turn had possibilities that, somehow, by wondering about them, his imagination had extraordinarily filled out and refined. It had made of them a revelation the loss of which was like the sigh of a priceless pearl cast before his eyes…into a fathomless sea, or rather even it was like the sacrifice of something sentient and throbbing, something that, for the spiritual ear, might have been audible as a faint far wail. This was the sound he cherished when alone in the stillness of his rooms. He sought and guarded the stillness, so that it might prevail there till the inevitable sounds of life, once more, comparatively coarse and harsh, should smother and deaden it– doubtless by the same process with which they would officiously heal the ache in his soul that was somehow one with it.”
All of this is to say nothing of Woo’s oft-imitated, never-equaled visual style. The film’s climactic 30-minute long action sequence has its own inner structure, with graceful shifts in tempo, volume, and intensity, and staging that at times calls to mind a hyper-kinetic adrenaline-fueled Busby Berkeley piece.