“Could we ever be friends?”
This is what Inspector “Tequila” Yuen (Chow Yun-fat) asks undercover lawman Alan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), mere minutes after wrestling a gun out of his hand in John Woo’s Hard Boiled, released 30 years ago in Hong Kong this month. (It didn’t hit the U.S. until a year later, when it made its stateside debut at the Sundance Film Festival.)
Like most films in Woo’s influential action oeuvre, Hard is about how even gun-toting badasses crave brotherhood. Finding an ally amidst the bloodshed and explosions is a constant theme in Woo’s work. His 1989 international breakthrough The Killer stars Chow as an assassin who joins forces with a police inspector (Danny Lee) when his back is against the wall; his 1986 groundbreaker A Better Tomorrow (also co-starring Chow) is about literal brothers (Ti Lung, the late Leslie Cheung) on opposite sides of the law, ultimately banding together to defeat a bigger threat.
The final Chinese-language film Woo made in the 20th century before going Hollywood (where he helmed such equally bonkers actioners as Hard Target, Broken Arrow and the glorious John Travolta/Nicolas Cage showdown Face/Off, which turns 25 this year), Hard was the filmmaker’s heavily explosive farewell to Hong Kong cinema. It’s another tale of opposite characters forming a bond while bullets and bombs pop off. If Killer is considered the coolest Woo film (Hollywood once had sights on remaking it, with Richard Gere as the assassin and Denzel Washington as the cop) and Tomorrow is his most groundbreaking, then Hard is the most definitive of Woo’s action filmography. That crazy-ass filmmaker pulls out everything in his arsenal to give you one hell of a ride. (He even shows up in a few scenes as a wise ex-cop-turned-bartender.) As film writer Abby Olcese said when she and her colleagues talked about the film on the debut episode of Total Massacre, “This is the movie that you tell your friends about…and the person that you’re telling it to does not believe you. And, then, you show them—and, then, they know.”
It goes like this: After a shootout at a teahouse (where people bring their pet birds in cages, apparently) leaves his partner dead, Chow’s rule-breaking, jazz-playing inspector goes on the warpath, going after any triad gangster who sheds police blood. Meanwhile, Leung’s deep-cover cop finds himself switching underworld alliances, getting closer to a power-mad kingpin (Anthony Wong) who forces him to betray a fatherly boss (Kwan Hoi-san), and trying not to get lost in the darkness of it all.
Hard sees Woo (who came up with the story along with screenwriter Barry Wong, who died of a heart attack before finishing the script) once again delving into the oh-so-fragile issues of honor and identity. And just like Killer and Tomorrow, it features conflicted, antihero protagonists who attempt to do what’s right, even if it means descending into a whole lot of wrong. While Chow’s cop-on-the-edge (a character Chow would later revisit in a videogame) sequel Woo developed) protects his badge-carrying brethren by becoming a one-man killing machine, Leung’s tormented, undercover brother (a character originally developed as a psychopath who poisoned babies) would rather sail the world on his boat instead of pumping one more dude full of lead. One look at Hard and you’ll immediately see where Martin Scorsese’s The Departed—and Infernal Affairs, the 2002 Hong Kong film it’s based on—picked up its pulpy, melodramatic theme of cops and criminals living double lives.
While Chow and Leung, two of the most charismatic matinee idols Hong Kong has ever produced, are both at their gun-blasting finest, the true stars of the show are the action sequences, which are truly the model definition of controlled chaos. We’re talking explosions, bodies doing full, flying 360s once they get shot at, debris and shit falling all over the place—oh, it’s a beautiful, balletic, blood-stained mess. If the teahouse shootout—complete with the iconic shot of Chow sliding down a banister firing two guns—doesn’t get you, there’s the warehouse scene where Chow shows up with a shotgun and a lotta smoke bombs, taking down baddies by his gotdamn self. Some of them he annihilates while they’re riding motorcycles.
But the movie’s notorious centerpiece also makes up most of the second half. Chow and Leung team up and basically spend an hour taking out gangsters all over a hospital (where a secret lair full of guns and explosions is located, next to the morgue). Both sides literally do some serious damage, as the police try not to take out whatever patients the criminals haven’t already wasted.
It’s here where Woo shows off his flair for crafting brilliantly orchestrated carnage. In a bravura single take that lasts nearly three minutes, Chow and Leung shoot their way through two floors’ worth of armed goons. In an interview in the 1997 book Hong Kong Babylon, Woo said that scene, which took two days and “several hundred” rehearsals to shoot, was predictably complicated: “I almost give up, but the crew and the stunt group and the actor, they all want to try it again. At last we got it done.” Hard reaches its over-the-top crescendo when Chow shoots more guys, jumps out a window and narrowly avoids myriad bombs that go off, all while holding a baby. In Babylon, Woo recalled how he almost killed his star during this finale, personally giving the cue to set off the blast when the stunt coordinator and the special effects guy refused to do it with Chow still in frame. (“Some of the explosion was pretty close to his body, and Chow Yun-fat was really run for his life,” Woo said, laughing.)
Hard is such a gleefully gonzo blast of heroic bloodshed, it’s messed up that it’s yet another ‘90s film you currently can’t find on any streaming service. In fact, both Hard and Killer—films that once had their own, now-out-of-print Criterion Collection DVD releases nearly a quarter-century ago—are stuck in some film-rights limbo that makes them unavailable at the moment. As always, thank God for YouTube, where you can find a subtitled version.
Watching a movie that some giving soul uploaded on a video-sharing platform may not seem official. But if you want to see a bonafide, Hong Kong shoot-‘em-up from a master—a film that gives you the right amount of bullets, bombs and babies—getting Hard shouldn’t be that difficult.
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.