directed by John Woo
story by John Woo
screenplay by Barry Wong
Criterion Collection #9: Hard-Boiled. Or Hard Boiled without the hyphen. Depends who you ask.
辣 = laat = hot/cruel
手 = sau = hand
[辣手 = ruthless]
神 = san = god
探 = taam = detective
Laat sau san taam = “Ruthless Supercop” – though you’ll frequently see this given as “Hot-Handed God of Cops” which is really silly. According to wikipedia, the title is intentionally identical to the first part of the Chinese title of Dirty Harry, 辣手神探夺命枪, which they give as the asyntactic “Hot-Handed God of Cops Killer Gun.” Better would be “Ruthless Supercop’s Deadly Gun,” I guess. Or, if you prefer, “Dirty Harry.”
Immediately it is clear that this film is superior to The Killer. That’s not the general opinion but it’s mine. I can enjoy this movie much more easily than The Killer because it never lets up enough to have to get anything right. It doesn’t have to know anything about anything – that’s the downfall of movies like this. Your challenge, Mr. Woo, is to fill your allotted 90 minutes with only things you care about. Those include: jumping back in slow motion with a gun in each hand. Those do not include: people. In The Killer, not nearly enough screen time was spastic. Here we come closer.
Both of these movies remind me of the movies I would make with the family video camera when I was about 13: absolutely every shot is an obligation to be awesome. Woo never fails to reveal the epic intensity of, say, walking down a hallway. The moviemaking reminds me of my imagination at an even younger age, when I was always straining to find ways that mundane moments could seem loaded and thrilling – and then lazily settling for whatever presented itself. I would become fixated on some silly little kinetic event I could rig up – like a paper cup falling off a table – and then would imagine it invested with hugely suspenseful significance. When this cup falls off the table, a man is going to die, and he’s watching as it rolls closer and closer… oh no! oh no! there it goes NOOOO! IN SLOW MOTION!!!! NOOOOO!!!!
Or even just turning the pages of a book, if I slowed it down enough and gave it imaginary foreboding in my mind, could start to seem like something out of some kind of intense, Hitchcockian movie. Oh my god when he gets to the next page a guy’s going to die NOOOOO!
Well, that very scene happens in Hard Boiled. And it’s everything a fourth-grader would want it to be.
But this is not actually good enough. It might sound like I’m saying John Woo has stayed true to a childlike exuberance. I’m not saying that. I’m saying it seems like a fourth-grader made this movie. I don’t see any reason why John Woo couldn’t maintain those enthusiasms yet have the discrimination of an adult, the self-discipline to admit that, actually, a paper cup falling off a table just isn’t really cool.
Okay, enough of this sort of talk. It sounds like I don’t get it. But no, I really do. I get it. The movie is trash cinema and its admirers love it that way. It’s a “flick.” It’s fun because it’s all secondhand – or, really, threehundredthhand – and it’s been made by and for people who are just there for junk food served hot; your way, right away. These action scenes weren’t made to reflect the human condition; they were made to top other action scenes from other movies. Like when every opera had to have a revenge aria and a love aria and a ballet because that was just what was expected; the audience has flopped itself down at the great cultural diner and ordered “the usual.” The movie isn’t trying to impress us with artistry or ingredients; it just wants us to say “holy moley look how many fries they piled on there this time! Goddamn I love fries.” The quality of the food is beside the point – I mean, I guess it’s fine here, but we don’t really notice anymore. We just like this place for the atmosphere, and because everybody knows our name.
So all I can say is: this Chinese diner is crazy. They put the pickle IN the soup, and the burger came with TEN patties.
Or, slightly to the side of that silly metaphor: Watching these movies has been like heeding the word-of-mouth hype about a fast-food burger place, off the beaten path, that you absolutely have to try. You finally go and… yeah, maybe that’s better than other fast-food burgers. Or… maybe it isn’t. Hard to tell because it’s just a fast-food burger. Now you have to run back through your memory to remember who those people were gave you this recommendation. It was… oh yeah, The Criterion Collection. Well, everybody’s entitled. But will The Criterion Collection take my recommendations of, say, old Commodore 64 games? Probably not.
I would be remiss, though, if I did not concede that there are a really tremendous number of fries on there. You will not want for fries. The body count in this movie is incredible. Stuff blows up and people get shot with heartfelt fourth-grade inventiveness that never ever wavers. The entire second half of the movie, in a sense, is a single Die Hard-like sequence of escalating blow-up-itude. It does not let itself down. And a movie really living up to its own standards, whatever they are, can in itself be a satisfying thing.
Well, wow, now I’ve listened to the commentary track and I’m not sure I get it after all. I mean, I’m still sure, but I had to have a crisis of conscience first. These guys do not agree with what I said above. Or, wait, do they?
No question it’s an interesting listen. We have auteur John Woo himself, producer Terence Chang, critic Dave Kehr (now of the New York Times), and last but not least, Roger Avary, the guy who co-wrote Pulp Fiction and directed The Rules of Attraction and Killing Zoe – here, recorded in 1993, representing the Quentin Tarantino video store clerk contingent at the height of its relevance.
The commentary track is sort of like Being There. John Woo sounds very much like a guy who might make this movie, saying stuff like “I had Tequila shoot this tiny target from across the room so that at the end, when he shoots the bad guy through the eye, it’s credible,” and Chang corroborates the impression that the shoot mostly consisted of discussions about how much explosive to use and where to put it. Surrounding them, though, you have on the one hand Dave Kehr comparing Woo to Orson Welles and talking about the thematic depth and subtlety of his work, and in the other corner you have the geeknik, Roger Avary, excitedly noting how exhilaratingly confusing and secondhand the movie is, and declaring that such is the wave of the future.
I just invented “geeknik.”
Anyway, Dave Kehr, who seems perfectly intelligent, gave me pause. His conviction that these movies were deeply accomplished and genuinely significant – Criterion Collection-worthy, even – made me stop and reconsider my attitude. Was I being a boor and missing the boat? Was there really some kind of humanism in this? I just couldn’t see my way to it. I mean, just look! Look at the movie you’re talking about! Eventually Kehr says something that put my mind at ease: he talks about the eye-opening thrill, for American audiences, of seeing such well-worn themes and archetypes being used sincerely and “not as kitsch” – being embraced and utilized without any kind of ironic remove. Well, no question these movies are very, very sincere. But that’s exactly what real kitsch is. Manufactured camp is, no question, a depressing cultural phenomenon; let us please not conflate it with genuine camp, which is sincere and clueless. Kehr’s point seemed to be that the ridiculous sentimentality of these movies is actually redeemed and given new life because it is unafraid and heartfelt. But that’s just the slippery sincerity slope talking – you can have that same experience if you stare too long at a Hummel. There’s a sand trap there in your heart; beware! In general, though, I believe that Kehr’s real mistake was confusing impact with quality, stimulation with value. As many contemporary museum artists do. Maybe some people are comfortable with equating those things, but I stand firmly against that thinking.
Meanwhile, Roger Avary makes the whole Tarantino attitude seem shallow and confused (and also implicitly endorses my comments about The Killer) when he says that he enjoys these Hong Kong films because they are so blatantly derivative of Western cinema cliches… and that he is drawn to the blatantly derivative because his generation was born into a culture surrounded by prior culture… and that he and his ilk are therefore inclined to create cinema defined by its references and relations to existing cinema. But this is a superficial parallel drawn between two cultures with very different problems. America is coughing its way through soul-stifling inundation with its own accumulated cultural pile-up – anxiety of influence on a massive scale. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is using this stuff in a totally different socio-psychological way: it wants to be famous and lucky, like the West, and thereby save itself. The movies in question are aspirationally derivative, because the East is naively trying to remake itself in the West’s image, but better. Quentin and Roger’s movies, on the other hand, are willfully derivative, because of America’s cultural suffocation, where exponential garden-variety provincial cultural inbreeding has given way to inbreeding chic. In 90s California, fetishistic navel-gazing is IN. 1991 Hong Kong, I feel certain, knows no such phenomenon.
I guess I will concede the basic point being made by these admirers of the movie, which is that when you watch it, you are impressed by its spirit and energy. But that can mean so many things. I was impressed with it as one is impressed with a child who wears a Power Rangers costume, with mask, out to dinner. “How peculiar it must be to be you!” you think. “If you weren’t like this, I would never get to see this crazy thing I’m seeing.” Is that really enough? That’s the appeal of “outsider art,” but this isn’t outsider art – this is a product of mass culture for a mass audience. But mass culture can get pretty crazy. I would show this movie at a party.
And that reminds me of one last comment I wanted to make. These two movies were the sort of thing that other kids somehow saw. Kids who were less attentively parented than I. But occasionally those things crept in anyway, at sleepovers and other unchaperoned parties. To me these movies were evocative of middle school sleepovers, of my fleeting encounters with the world of things that people who thought I was lame thought were cool. Things that made me feel morally itchy. I have a friend who told me that when she was younger, her parents were not opposed to her seeing sex or violence per se, but that they attempted to protect her from movies with “a seedy worldview.” Yes.
At heart, these movies do not actually have a truly seedy worldview, but they very much want to, which makes them perfect fare for kids who are looking to get a sense of worldliness from something forbidden. Somewhere online I found a comment, surely (hopefully) from a seventh-grader, to the effect that Hard Boiled is way more hardcore and awesome than other action movies because there is so much spurting blood and so many innocent bystanders get killed. To the movie’s way of thinking – and Dave Kehr’s, I guess – that’s actually what makes it so sad. But the movie is in profound agreement with the kids at the sleepover party that it is also hardcore, and so it is well suited to them.
These days, it seems like whenever I see an anonymous bad guy get riddled with bullets and flop over, some kind of prudish widower in my soul perversely insists that I think about his life up to that point, his relatives, his individual personality, the fact that he probably didn’t expect that would be the last day of his life, etc. etc. (This is the same smug parade-raining jerk who makes me look everywhere but at the trick when watching magicians. Dammit.) So I sort of imagined that my younger self would have been horrified and upset by these movies. But Star Wars is full of guys getting casually killed and flopping over, and I cheerfully watched those movies over and over as a kid. So this might not have bothered me as much as I imagine, in retrospect, that it would have. In any case, I was never at this particular sleepover. By 1993 I guess I was too old.
The Criterion disc (long out of print, but I obtained!) also contains previews for all of John Woo’s other Hong Kong films, going back to 1973. Watching the evolution of this particular brand of junk over two decades is fascinating and amusing, and certainly provides plenty of grist for the conversation about the developmental status of Asian cultural identity. And some funny subtitle translations.
Music for Hard Boiled is by jazz composer Michael Gibbs and is wonderfully typical of a genre action movie from the late eighties/early nineties. I can’t help but smile at stuff like this. I’m giving you the end titles, which is a reuse of music from earlier in the movie – a track referred to on the soundtrack album as “Red Car Boogie,” because it accompanies the first appearance of Tony Leung as he drives a red car, indicating that he is a hotshot. As for the “boogie” part – well, you can hear for yourself! Boogie on, 1992!