Well, I guess he can direct action movies
Sure, and Michaelangelo can paint ceilings!
That was the conversation that producers (and Quentin Tarantino) had about importing John Woo to the U.S. so that he may direct films in the U.S. The effects on his career this had and the quality of the films is certainly up for debate. But, it also brings more importance and a certain air of urgency to his last film made in Hong Kong: Hard Boiled. Hard Boiled demonstrated that, had Woo remained in Hong Kong, he could have become a sort of Chinese Kurosawa that influenced many filmmakers abroad with his repackaged versions of western cliches and techniques.
Hard Boiled is about a police officer, Inspector Tequila (Chow Yun Fat, the Robert De Niro of the John Woo cannon) who is trying to uncover a gun runners’ smuggling operation. He begins to run into the same man over and over, only to find that this man Tony (Tony Leung) is an undercover cop. The struggle comes to a boil when the arms dealer starts taking patients at a local hospital hostage to prevent his weapons from being confiscated.
Of course, like many American action films, plot is secondary here. The focus is on John Woo’s blood ballet technique. His action scenes are as carefully choreographed as any dance. There are several famous shoot outs in this film, including the opening tea house gun battle. The hospital scenes go through every single action cliche imaginable, and then proceeds to deconstruct them until it shows itself to be almost new.
There are two advantages to this style. First, each and every death that occurs on screen is given importance. Emphasis is given to each character’s injuries and deaths. Sometimes, their final moments are repeated for us over and over. Other times, it happens quickly, but not quickly enough to show that a person has been killed.
Many action films seem to not care about the body count, or at least not care about it beyond how high they can make it. Woo cared about each and every single death. Indeed, Woo cared about saying something about violence. “Give a man one gun and he’s Superman, give him two and he’s God” says one character earlier. Except, as we see, that is not the case at all. Every hero in the film is not empowered by the gun. Indeed, their dependence on them causes more harm than good. The villains all believe they are, to the point where they can gun down hospital patients.
The style, therefore, is a wonderful way to confuse the audience into accepting the violence onscreen, while also realizing that the violence has actual consequences.
The second advantage to Woo’s blood ballet style is that it is a way for Woo to distance himself from his western influences. Woo has never been shy about the fact that he was influenced by people like Scorsese. Yet, it was necessary for Woo to distance himself and stake out his own territory. After all, hundreds of directors have tried to copy Scorsese. Very few are memorable. So Woo sought out to be a sort of inverse to American trends. As those directors became grittier, Woo became more stylized. Why? So people would be influenced by him, I suppose. To that, Woo succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
And that is why Hard Boiled feels like the swan song it didn’t mean to. When Woo came to America, he had to deal with producers who wanted him to be more like his western counterparts. All the style he had spent years trying to perfect in Hong Kong…completely absent in most of his American films (Face/Off may be the sole exception, but even that is nowhere near as powerful an action film as Hard Boiled). That makes his earlier work that much more important. Those are the films that will stand up to the test of time.
But what is the real impact of Hard Boiled? I have explained how it is important to Woo’s career. What about action films as a whole? The impact can be readily seen in any film. The Matrix would not exist without John Woo. Chan Woo Park would not exist without John Woo. The continued interest in Asian action films would not be present. And directors would continue to be gritty rather than stylized.
Yet Woo is greater than that, because Woo realized the human story there. Tequila is the greatest police officer since Harry Callahan. He argues with his boss. He is a neglectful boyfriend. He makes friends with unsavory characters. He tries to escape through music (the film opens with him at a jazz club). Chow Yun Fat perfectly disappears inside of this character. Tequila revitalized the police anti-hero. Even if the character did morally ambiguous things, audiences could expect him to still retain the level of humanity the villains are lacking.
Hard Boiled is one of the greatest action films of all time. It comments on violence, introduces us to unforgettable heroes and villains, and creates scenes and situations that people will discuss long after the film has finished.