With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.
Hard Boiled (1992)
A few minutes into Hard Boiled, John Woo’s 1992 masterpiece, two gunrunners attempt to flee from one of those Hong Kong teahouses where people carry birdcages. They’ve been making a deal, but a couple of supercops have shown up to bust them, and they’re just trying to escape. They shoot indiscriminately at a staircase behind them, wounding and killing bystanders. One of the cops in pursuit is Chow Yun-Fat, the De Niro to Woo’s Scorsese. As Chow pushes a woman away from oncoming fire, a bullet shatters the tile near his face. He grimaces and falls backward, but doesn’t give up his pursuit. Instead, he slides down the staircase’s bannister, shooting two guns at the gunrunners. They’re both dead by the time he touches the ground. The whole time, Chow never stops dangling a toothpick out of the side of his mouth. This is possibly the single coolest thing I have ever seen anyone do in a movie.
Hard Boiled is full of absurdly, impossibly cool moments like that. That toothpick stays in Chow’s mouth until the very end of that bugshit opening gunfight. Chow is pursuing the criminal who killed his partner, and they’re shooting at each other across the teahouse’s kitchen. Chow, under heavy fire, dives across a counter and gets himself covered in flour. When he lands, he looks like a ghost, and he finds himself with a gun to his enemy’s forehead. He spits his toothpick at the guy and pulls the trigger as blood splashes all over him. The toothpick gets to have a complete emotional arc.
Later, in an equally amazing warehouse shoot-out, Tequila, Chow’s character, will rappel from the ceiling like the pro wrestler Sting, shooting a machine gun in every direction—this, after two groups of mobsters have shot each other to pieces. One guy will jump a motorcycle at Tequila—the idea being, I suppose, to land on him—and Tequila will shoot the motorcycle and make it explode in mid-air. Mad Dog, the movie’s ridiculously badass villainous-henchman character—one who will get a much-deserved heroic death about an hour later—will light a cigarette on some random exposed flame, a by-product of all the chaos that’s erupted in the preceding minutes. And those two shoot-outs, in the teahouse and the warehouse, are nothing compared to the endless, insane climactic hospital gun fight, one that essentially takes up the last 45 minutes of the movie. The hospital shoot-out is probably the most excessive stretch of gun violence ever committed to film and also the best, and Hard Boiled is full of moments like those.
Hard Boiled is the single greatest movie from the single greatest action movie director of all time. It’s Woo’s masterpiece. By the time Woo made it, he’d spent a half-decade revolutionizing Hong Kong action cinema, changing the way gunfights looked and replacing period-piece kung fu legends with effortlessly cool gangsters as the sort of default heroes of Hong Kong movies. Immediately after making Hard Boiled, Woo decamped for Hollywood, embarking on what was, for a while, an extremely successful mainstream American directing career. But before he took that journey, he showed that he could beat American action movies at their own game, pushing the genre to new heights of surreal violence and icy badassery. Taste is subjective and all, but if you have a top-five action-movies list and Hard Boiled isn’t on it, your top five ain’t shit.
The actual movie parts of the movie, of course, are complete nonsense. In the stretches in between gunfights, Woo essentially spins his wheels, and nobody quite bothers to make sure the movie’s narrative actually makes sense. Chow and his girlfriend—Teresa Mo, the only woman with anything to do in the movie, and it still isn’t much—spend way too much time decoding musical messages from Tony Leung’s undercover cop Alan. Chow also spends too much of the movie playing smooth-jazz clarinet in a club where Woo himself plays the ex-cop bartender who dispenses terrible aphoristic advice (“If he really was my friend, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment, whether he was right or wrong”).
There are fun moments in there. Alan, undeniably cool, claims that he hates making origami paper cranes, and that’s why he makes them each time he kills a guy. Meanwhile, the station chief gets so pissed off at Tequila that he switches languages entirely, cussing him in out in English for some reason. But it’s really worth wondering whether undercover cops are really out here massacring unarmed criminal colleagues just to impress their new criminal bosses. My thinking is probably not! And while we’re at it, would a gangster really keep all his guns hidden underneath a hospital, and then would he really attempt to take the entire hospital hostage when a couple of cops came close to finding those guns? And in that final shoot-out, so many civilians die that the whole thing would have to be considered a massive, grand-scale police failure.
But while those narrative quibbles might occur to you while watching Hard Boiled, they never get in the way. Woo was never about plausibility anyway; his greatest American movie, after all, revolves around the idea that John Travolta could get surgery switching faces with Nicolas Cage. Instead, all that really matters is the feeling—the beloved Woo themes of brotherhood and self-sacrifice in battle—and the sheer kinetic force of the filmmaking. Woo is one of those filmmakers whose characters say a whole lot more when they’re shooting at each other than when they’re actually talking.
Consider, if you will, the movie’s famous unbroken three-minute tracking shot—a groundbreaking sequence that would pave the way for similarly mind-bending long-take action scenes like the ones in Children Of Men, The Protector, and season one of True Detective. The scene is a triumph of planning and choreography, with Chow and Leung shooting their way through hospital hallways, setting off explosions and sending bodies flying through windows. But it also has character beats deeper than anything you’ll find in the movie’s non-gunfight scenes. Leung makes a tragic mistake, goes through deep and roiling self-doubt, and does his best to power through it. Chow talks him through it—partly because he loves and respects the guy and partly because they’ll only survive the fight if they’re both completely in the moment. There’s dialogue, but they tell most of it through facial expression and body language, and they do it in between bursts of gunfire. It’s something no other filmmaker could’ve pulled off.
In this column, I try to highlight the action movies that were the most important and influential of their respective years. But it’s hard to call Hard Boiled influential. Plenty of movies have tried to imitate the dazzled beauty of its violence, but none have really come close. Woo, tragically, still has yet to make another movie with Chow. After making it, the director spent decades away from Hong Kong cinema; the next thing he made was 1993’s ridiculous and fun-as-fuck Van Damme vehicle Hard Target—easily my favorite Van Damme movie, but still a far cry from what Woo was making at home. There are distant echoes of Hard Boiled in a few dozen subsequent movies, but this isn’t a Die Hard/Lethal Weapon situation in which the movie helped establish a winning formula. Hard Boiled stands alone.
Still, it’s impossible for me to consider giving the movie’s spot to anything else. Almost no action movies are as beautiful, as brutal, as rewatchable, or as straight-up great as Hard Boiled. Very few are as iconic. Woo and Chow have both done amazing things, before and since, but it seems unlikely that either will ever equal the vision of Chow sprinting through a hospital, clutching a nameless infant, and shooting untold numbers of enemy henchmen. The baby, cooing and smiling, gets blood splashed on its face. Chow thanks it for pissing on his pants when they catch on fire. Chow sings nursery rhymes while executing attackers. There’s just nothing else like it, and there never will be.
Other notable action movies of 1992: The year’s big runner-up has to be El Mariachi, the zero-budget debut from Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s independent shoot-’em-up was intended to be a sort of audition reel for Mexico’s straight-to-video market, but it turned out to be a sensation on the American festival circuit instead, for good reason. The movie bursts with energy and inventiveness and charisma, and Rodriguez would get a whole lot of mileage out of the idea of a traveling musician with a guitar case full of guns.
And 1992 was also the year that Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal got their biggest mainstream looks. In Under Siege, Seagal played a badass Navy cook who saves an entire ship—and, while he’s at it, all of Honolulu—from a pair of insane hijackers played, in an inspired feat of casting, by twin scenery-inhalers Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey. It’s a good movie that would be great if Seagal didn’t give every single fucking line a sarcastic-eighth-grader reading. That year Van Damme also played a reanimated, searching-for-himself Frankenstein’s monster figure in Universal Soldier, taking on Dolph Lundgren’s wonderful psychotic-dead-guy villain. Universal Soldier had plenty of problems, but it still stands as probably the only kind-of-good movie that director Roland Emmerich ever made, and years later, it spawned a pair of shockingly great direct-to-DVD sequels.
There was a whole lot going on in Hong Kong in 1992. With Once Upon A Time In China II, Woo’s old frienemy Tsui Hark returned Jet Li to his iconic role as Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hong, and he also gave the world the screen debut of Donnie Yen, who currently reigns as the world’s single greatest screen action star. (Yen is the best thing about Rogue One, and this is not up for debate.) Supercop, the third movie in Jackie Chan’s Police Story series, stands as one of Chan’s most daffily enjoyable, and it features the immortal scene of Michelle Yeoh jumping a motorcycle onto the roof of a moving train—a stunt that Yeoh pulled off herself. With Full Contact, director Ringo Lam gave Chow Yun-Fat a role that rivaled what he did in Hard Boiled for sheer badassery. It’s a gloriously trashy gangster movie that ends with Chow telling his enemy to “go masturbate in hell” immediately after killing him; I can’t recommend it enough. And then there’s the awesomely strange Naked Killer, about a female assassin who murders guys by stabbing them repeatedly in the dick.
America just couldn’t compete with that, but we tried. With The Last Of The Mohicans, Michael Mann translated a classic literary adventure into something that really felt like a ’90s action movie and brought Daniel Day-Lewis weirdly close to action-hero status in the process. With Passenger 57, Wesley Snipes essentially gave up a promising dramatic-actor career to dive headlong into B-movie action heroics, and that choice would eventually yield great things, but it would take time. (Passenger 57 itself is plenty watchable, but as far as Die Hard rip-offs set on planes go, it’s a distant third to Executive Decision and Air Force One.) Rapid Fire was the first real action vehicle for Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon, and he got to flex a winning personality and do some great screen fighting, including a scene with perennial henchman Al Leong that continues to fill me with fond feelings. Rapid Fire wasn’t a lost classic or anything, but it showed that Lee really could’ve been something if his life hadn’t been cut tragically short. And Trespass proved the great ’70s action director Walter Hill was still capable of making cool shit, even if he had to cast both Ice Cube and Ice-T to get it made.
Next time: With The Fugitive, director Andrew Davis (Above The Law, Under Siege) gives us maybe our best ever adaptation of an old TV show, restoring Harrison Ford to action-movie greatness and scoring a Best Picture nomination along the way.