Decades: “Hard Boiled” and it’s Vitality to Action Cinema History


Source: MUBI

Will Teare

“Decades: The 2’s” is a series of articles tackling a year in each decade leading up to 2022. From 1952 to 2012, I plan to write about a single film that needs to make a return into the cinematic conversation once again to honor its overall quality and craftsmanship. These films may not be the defining film of the year, but one that should be honored with just as much regard. 


The cinematic world of Hong Kong is possibly my favorite place to visit when I’m in the mood for a foreign film. I love all the art, history, culture, and gorgeous landscapes on display. But, I have to admit, it’s largely because of action. Since they started cooking up action films over there, they’ve changed the game for the entire world in that genre. Jackie Chan pioneered action comedies and Bruce Lee popularized Kung Fu. We have landmark Wuxia films like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (a personal all-timer) and Zhang Yimou’s Hero that put the “art” in “martial arts”. But Wuxia and martial arts comedies like those weren’t the only genre that Hong Kong invented. There is another genre that dominates action movies we see today in America. It’s called “Gun Fu” and it was invented by John Woo in 1986 with A Better Tomorrow. But it was perfected, popularized, and brought over to the US in his 1992 masterpiece, Hard Boiled. 

Hard Boiled is about Inspector “Tequila” Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat), a dual pistol-toting, heavy drinking, clarinet playing, jazz-loving cop with an attitude and penchant for breaking the rules. When his partner is killed in a shoot-out with smugglers, he sets off on a mission to hunt them down, by any means necessary. Assisted by undercover cop/hitman Alan (Tony Leung), there’s nothing that can get in their way, not even an entire army of triad gangsters they’ll soon face.

Right off the bat, let’s talk about the most cookie-cutter cop plot you’ve ever heard of. A buddy cop movie? With one being a rule-breaking cop but he’s still the best cop on the force? I mean I can hear the “I want your badge and your gun on my desk” speech from here. We’ve seen it all before. What really sets this movie apart is the execution. It’s all about “Gun Fu”.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Gun Fu is very literally a combination of using guns either as choreographed action (Hard Boiled) or using half gunfire and half kung fu(John Wick). For reference, Gun Fu is alternatively called a “Bullet Ballet”. The genre has a few central tenets. One is the aforementioned combo of hand-to-hand combat and guns and/or choreographed gunfire. You will often find little realism in the action, oil drums will explode on impact, and there will be little to absolutely zero reloading. Additionally, lots and lots of collateral damage, not like innocent human lives collateral damage, more like any building that a fight begins in will be rendered to rubble and dirt by the end of it.  

Hard Boiled is no exception to any of these things, but in the best way possible. There’s not a lot of hand-to-hand combat as much as choreographed destruction of the environment in an entertaining way. Tequila running to additional cover with squibs and flares mimicking gunfire rattle the surrounding environment as his previous cover is blown to bits by some sort of explosive. Hard Boiled makes all that so much fun with the addition of Tequila doing ridiculous things like pounding tequila and then getting up on stage in a Hong Kong jazz bar and playing the clarinet in the opening seconds.  

I also have to mention the three key players of the film, John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat, and Tony Leung. In strictly American movie-going terms, these three aren’t big names for you, but in Hong Kong, you simply couldn’t get bigger than them.

John Woo was a key player in late 80’s Hong Kong filmmaking and after Hard Boiled unexpected success and critical love in the west, he headed over across the Pacific to Hollywood. There, he made 90’s action classics Mission Impossible 2, Broken Arrow, Hard Target, and Face/Off.

Chow Yun-Fat is easily the least known out of the three in the US, but trust me when I say he’s an action legend in his home region. He’s Captain Sao Feng in Pirates of the Caribbean and he stars alongside Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. 

Tony Leung Chu-Wai is the exception. He is, by far, the most prolific Hong Kong actor in history even before his turn as the villainous Wenwu in Shang-Chi. Before then, he has been in both Wong Kar-wai dramas where he sweeps awards anytime the two legends show up at Cannes, and has his fair share of  martial arts skills to show off in action movies. He is one of the most recognized faces in Asia and his career largely started with this movie. 

Hard Boiled is a very well-known classic to action fans and cinephiles, but there’s an issue with access to this movie. You cannot legally obtain this movie anywhere. Not on any streaming service, not available to rent, not available to purchase physically, nothing. Now, this is when the good people at Criterion swoop in and give it a remastered blu-ray. But, they already did that years ago and for whatever legal reason, they don’t have it in stock anymore. I assume the legality of the film prevents them from selling anymore but that is still a huge loss for the art form and history of this medium we call cinema. This movie deserves better than that on its 30th anniversary. 

The Matrix, John Wick, Tomb Raider, Kick-Ass, Kingsman, Equilibrium and Wanted. All insanely popular franchises and films that genuinely never would’ve existed without John Woo’s visionary action direction for the film called: Hard Boiled