Lat sau san taam
Hong Kong, 1992
Review by Glenn Heath Jr.
Posted on 27 July 2012
Source Dragon Dynasty/Weinstein Company BRD
Categories John Woo’s Hong Kong
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double…
The Clash’s iconic rock lyrics nicely represent the artistic and professional crossroads director John Woo must have faced during the production of his last Hong Kong film, 1992’s Hard Boiled. After nearly a decade of churning out gravity defying genre films in his native country, Woo reached an artistic and thematic apex with this brazenly violent saga about a rogue cop named Tequila waging war against a brutal gang of gun smugglers. Even amidst the ambitious and hypnotic set pieces where exploding bullets take on a jazz-like quality, one could imagine Woo asking himself, “Where do I go from here?” It didn’t take long for the director to make the obvious decision to head west. Tempted by the inflated budgets, the appeal of his films to Western audiences, and the cutting edge technology of Hollywood, Woo departed that same year for the U.S. to make the Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target in what would become, to many, a career-changing transition from which the action auteur has yet to fully recover.
What’s most fascinating about Hard Boiled is its own obsession with emigration—its main characters are hard-nosed men dealing with the exact same dilemma as Woo. Throughout the film, the director purposefully highlights moments where social and professional transition are in question, debated, and refuted despite the escalating violence that engulfs each action frame. This splintering sense of national identity and personal self is fully examined in the character of Tony, an undercover cop turned assassin who’s infiltrated the ranks of the diabolical gang leader Johnny. Torn between his duty to destroy organized crime from the inside out and his desire to escape Hong Kong for a life of peace somewhere abroad (he cites Antarctica as location of choice), Tony is the ultimate Woo hero: perpetually conflicted by external and internal forces, a feeling signified by the paper cranes he folds to mark the different men he’s killed. Early on, Tony even confesses to his superior officer that he’s “so busy being a gangster, I don’t know which me is real.”
If Tony represents the national schizophrenia facing Hong Kong in the years leading up to Britain’s impending transfer of sovereignty in 1997, Tequila and his dedication to homegrown retaliation provides the patented opposing force that every great Woo film contains. During the infamous Wyndam Teahouse sequence that opens Hard Boiled, Tequila’s ill-fated partner shares a similar sense of nationalist pride: “If I’m going to die, I want to be buried here.” Seconds later, when the contained internal space erupts with slow-motion gunfire, lateral tracking shots, and piles of dead innocents, Woo shows the physical cost of living and dying by such a credo. In turn, this devastating gunfight pushes Tequila to become more vigilant and reactionary toward the forces of organized crime destroying the very social fabric he yearns to protect.
So it goes that Tequila and Tony spend the first act of Hard Boiled trying to murder each other despite their similar goals. Both are men of action cut from the same institutional cloth hiding their true nature behind the barrels of twin Berattas. As Woo’s breakneck narrative jumps between Tequila’s increasingly volatile police tactics and Tony’s desperate attempts to balance his own loyalty and survival, the conflict of fight or flight inevitably defines each man’s experiences. In one of Hard Boiled’s few quiet moments, the elderly gang boss Mr. Hui explains to Tony why he won’t curtail to Johnny’s advances on his illegal business: “I was born in this place and I’ll die here.” It’s a quote that echoes a similarly resonant scene shared between Tequila and his bartender friend Mr. Woo (played by the director himself), where the latter character gives a pertinent slice of wisdom: “We can’t have everything in life.” The death match between perception and reality, desire and practicality is not only a device for action kinetics or illusive characterizations; it’s a window into understanding the extreme division of loyalty that seems to be fragmenting an entire nation.
Eventually, Hard Boiled brings the contrasting ideologies of Tequila and Tony together for the greater good in an elaborately bombastic extended climax. Inside the multi-level Maple Hospital, the location of Johnny’s vault-like underground cache of weapons, the two cops battle wave after wave of ruthless hooligans armed to the teeth and actively using innocent patients as cover. Situational urgency and the potential for mass causalities transcend all the bickering and posturing that’s come before, with Woo elongating the duration and stretching the space of each action sequence. One brilliantly fluid shot follows Tequila and Tony as they move in a SWAT-like 2 man formation down a corridor, defending themselves against gunmen who seem to pop out of every corridor and window frame. Woo’s steadicam is positioned in front of the action looking back, capturing each burst of sudden violence in one gripping take that culminates in a rush of gunfire as elevator doors open into a new fully engaged space.
The fact that Hard Boiled ends with Tequila and Tony sharing the responsibility and burden for rescuing as many handicapped, ailing, and maimed patients as possible proves that Woo is, at his core, an optimist. Individualism means nothing when battling an evil like Johnny, and this collective sacrifice is seen every time an officer is shot trying to save one of the dozens of screaming babies in the classic last sequence. Working together, Tony and Tequila, along with the rest of the brave police force, together fulfill the immortal phrasing spoken by their superior officer earlier in the film, when, in a fit of rage he warns Tequila, “Give a man a gun and he thinks he’s Superman. Give him two and he thinks he’s God.” If the ending of Hard Boiled proves anything, it’s that one man isn’t enough.
Fittingly, as if to foreshadow Woo’s own imminent departure for America, Hard Boiled ends with Tony sailing away on his boat dropping paper cranes in the water. Tequila on the other hand is firmly rooted at home having reconnected with his girlfriend Teresa during the Maple Hospital affair. In this sense, Hard Boiled comes around full circle with its denouement; once again the narrative separates its gun-toting heroes, but this time gives each a choice in which personal direction to pursue. While Woo’s last stand in Hong Kong is arguably the greatest action film ever made, full of death-defying stunts and images that still feel titanic today, one can’t deny the inherent melancholy of seeing a master of kinetic mise-en-scene bidding adieu to the complex textual playground that made his work so dynamic in the first place.
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