The first act of Hard Boiled is fantastic. Between Woo’s glossy, smooth jazz but with bite tone and Chow Yun-Fat’s glorious lead performance; it’s all like butter. There’s a big, intricate shootout with Woo (and his editors Ah-Chik, Kai Kit-Wai, and David Wu) doing masterful work, there’s some workplace humor with cop Chow being on the outs with some of the time girlfriend and all of the time supervisor Teresa Mo, there’s Chow at a jazz club, and there’s Tony Chiu-Wai Leung doing a cool soulful (but smooth jazz soulful) gangster. It’s awesome.
Unfortunately, Hard Boiled runs two hours and change (depending how much violence has been cut out) and while the first act lasts a quarter of it and the next thirty or so minutes is still solid—as Leung has to decide whether or not to betray nice guy (for a triad) boss Kwan Hoi-San for obnoxious but successful Anthony Chau-Sang Wong while Chow enters the orbit, out for Wong’s head—but the movie runs out of story in at about the hour mark. There’s some plotting for the rest of it, but it’s really just moving bodies to their next stunt point.
And the second hour of Hard Boiled, which takes place in one location, which gets shot and blown up to hell as Chow, Leung, and Wong (mostly through his main enforcer, a very effective Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok) wage war on each other. See, Wong’s an arms smuggler so there are all sorts of neat guns and explosives for the fellows to play with as the bad guys go from endangering civilians to holding babies hostage. You know Wong and his guys are bad because they’re willing to kill babies.
It’s a really cheap way to drum up concern for the collateral damage, but it’s fine. The star of the second half of Hard Boiled is the pyrotechnics. Things are always blowing up. Yes, the infinite ammo mode gunfights are elaborate as well, but Woo doesn’t really direct them so much as execute them. The bangs and booms are the stars of the movie, not Chow or Leung. They’re just the guys who led the camera to the best places for bangs and booms.
The movie doesn’t even take the time for big bad fights—there’s more of one in the opening gunfight than anywhere else, even though Kwok’s in the movie a lot more than Wong—because it rejects the idea any of it can be personal. Barry Wong’s script doesn’t do character development or character arcs. It just does setups to action set pieces for Woo to execute. Leung gets some pensive alone time, which is fine and sympathizing (eventually and sort of retroactively), while most of Chow’s is spent with… director Woo, who also plays the jazz club owner, who used to be a cop too.
Woo is not a good actor and the scenes—outside when they bring the main plot in—are pretty blah. Especially since Chow and Mo are a really fun bicker couple. Mo’s usually around in the film, but never with enough to do. Woo doesn’t have time for a badass female super cop, just the one dude. And Chow’s good for it. Though even he loses his energy by the third act, maybe as he’s waiting for the scene where they blow up a set while he walks through it. There are a lot of stunts in Hard Boiled and you can usually tell when it’s not Chow and when it is Leung. Leung seems to be in the fistfights more than Chow, but Chow then turns around and lets them blow up the floor of a building with him on it.
Great stunt work, great action choreography, but Woo’s directing to show off those elements, not make it part of a narrative gesture or anything. The first hour’s just an excuse for the second.
Leung’s great, Chow’s great. Wong’s low okay. Kwok’s good, Mo’s good. Philip Chan’s fine as the big cop boss. His part’s iffy.
And the rest of the cast, eventual bang and boom fodder, sometimes for set decoration sometimes to motivate Leung or Chow, they’re all solid. Wong doesn’t even take the time to make them caricatures they’re so disposable, especially after the first act.
Hard Boiled’s sometimes really good, always pretty good, and just a little long at times. It’s got a lot of expertly executed action and some good performances, it just doesn’t really have much of a movie. It turns out it is, after all, smooth jazz.