We indulge in a fair amount of nostalgia in the Black Nerd Problems office. We pride ourselves on our love of 90s cartoons like Gargoyles and Darkwing Duck and our dedication to old video games (see the entire Staff Beef on Tekken vs. Soul Calibur vs. Street Fighter, it’ll take you back. I mostly keep my mouth shut so as not to show my age, not to mention the fact that making a lame suggestion will get you left out of the Wednesday Night Spades game.
It does get me thinking about what was blowing my mind back in the 90s. I was in college and had a best friend who was an avid movie fan. He was obsessed with Asian cinema. We watched every Bruce Lee movie for context then moved on to fall in love with Jackie Chan in The Legend of the Drunken Master and be amazed by Jet Li in The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk. Then, around 1995, we discovered dubbed VHS tapes of the Hong Kong action movies of John Woo, hereafter known as The God of Action Movies, and no action movie was ever the same again.
This weekend, I snuggled up with my nostalgia (and a Blu-Ray player) and rewatched the last of his original Hong Kong bad cop movies, Hard Boiled, starring Yun-Fat Chow and Tony Chiu Wai Leung. It did not disappoint.
In the movie Yun-Fat Chow plays Tequila, a cop who in the opening sequence is trying to break up an illegal gun smuggling deal. Now when I say “opening sequence” what really happens is enough mayhem in the first 5 minutes to fill half the action movies I’d seen up to that point. It all happens in a 2nd story tea house late at night, there are finches in cages, metal tea pots and baskets of dumplings used as weapons, and Tequila double guns it down a banister to kill I don’t even know how many gunrunners. The double hand gun move in movies is often called “to John Woo” because of scenes like this.
At the end of the opening, Tequila slides across a flour-covered table to land on the lead buyer. With one smooth motion, he blows dude’s brains out in a striking splash of red blood on his powdered white face. I knew this movie existed at a whole ‘nother level of acceptable casualties, not just with explosions and property damage, but with straight, blood-spilling, killing. This was blood splatter like in a slasher horror movie, but in the context of “reality”, splashed over the face of the “good guy” police officer who’s out there doing the right thing. Well, except that the guy he shot was an undercover agent….
Tony Leung is introduced as the next undercover agent, Alan, ready to break the gun smugglers wide open. But he’s so deeply embedded in the Triad gang that sometimes his loyalty gets shaky. Alan is the epitome of 90s sexy — graceful, slender, with a quick smile but also a cold dead stare. He drives a cool car and lives on a yacht, where he folds paper cranes for each of his victims (the angst!). He even wears those awful oversized suit jackets that were hot back then. In one of his first scenes, he assassinates a fellow gangster in a library. This may be a library, but the filming echoes every cowboy movie ever where the cowboy shoots a rival in a bar, it is all silhouettes and large guns and silence.
Finally, Tequila and Alan come into direct conflict in a three-way warehouse raid, where Alan double crosses his old boss for his new boss in an effort to ingratiate himself deeper into the organization and find out where the guns are being hidden. This is all broken up when Tequila raids the same warehouse and shit really catches fire.
The tension keeps building as Tequila and Alan discover together that the guns are being hidden in the basement of a city hospital. The antagonist is a straight monster, y’all. No doubt. As they work (I mean, kill) their way to the basement, Tequila and Alan develop respect for each other, with Tequila coming out as the wiser, older man who helps Alan shoulder the responsibility of playing both sides, a responsibility that weighs on him more and more. Both characters are amazingly sympathetic, in the midst of the largest shoot-out in a hospital ever. They verbally spar and trade moral qualms, but there’s a deep sense of the futility of it all. Good guys and bad guys, code or no code, they’re all going to die and kill a lot of innocent people in the process. There’s a bare, samurai nobility that they are all desperately clinging to, which keeps the movie from spinning completely out of control.
In the midst of a shoot-out across two floors of the hospital, the entire shot taken with one roll of film in one steady-cam, a first at the time, Tequila gives Alan the most gangster piece of advice ever:
If you can’t conquer your own fear, how can you conquer anyone else?
Is that the moral of the movie? Nah. I’m not sure there is one. But there is a crackling magic to it. A frenetic urban-ness that is both specific to Hong Kong, and can be seen in any large metropolis with more neon than daylight.
If you haven’t seen Hard Boiled, I recommend it, especially subtitled if you can take it. Even the high-quality dub loses something of the emotion, and believe me, you want to hear Yun-Fat Chow and Teresa Mo sing a line from Lionel Richie’s Hello.
This movie, and the rest of John Woo’s Hong Kong movies, are amazing in that they are simultaneously homages to previous action movies of all kinds — Chinese Kung Fu movies, Japanese Samurai movies, American Crime movies — while also being remixes and improvements. He cuts every scene harder, blows it up bigger, and draws it out longer than was expected in the 90s, and in the process, pushed the entire genre forward. After Hard Boiled, Woo came to the States and directed Hard Target, Broken Arrow, and Face/Off (one of my favorite action movies EVER). I expected that almost 25 years later, Hard Boiled would feel dated or cliched, but it doesn’t. The moves that are expected now — the double-hand-gun hero, the burst of doves out of an explosion, the long-shot fight scene down a hallway — still look crisp and original in this movie, because this, and Woo’s other movies, is where they started.
And that’s not nostalgia, that’s truth.