Weekend Retrospective - Bullet Ballet


"John Woo is..."


A trailer cut together with that press quote sums up the madness that is Hard Boiled, a crime thriller described as "gob smacking mayhem". They're not kidding. After setting the stage with action greats such as A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, John Woo returned to the heroic bloodshed genre to create his magnum opus. It would be the perfect distillation of everything that had come before, showcasing his fascination with meticulously staged gun battles and brotherhood themed stories one more time, while giving the forces of law and order a chance to be the heroes. Bringing together Chow Yun Fat from those previous movies and Tony Leung from his Vietnam war drama Bullet In The Head, this isn't as dark and melodramatic as anything that he'd directed earlier, but instead ends up as a comic book style action adventure with some cop movie dressings.

Though the influences of Le Samourai are again on show through with another lone outsider, the story has a far more pulpy feel to it. Leung takes on Chow Yun Fat's detective 'Tequila' in a battle of charisma. Anthony Wong's ruthless arms dealer chews the scenery and orders around an eye patching wearing henchman. Several thousand bullet squibs are used. Smooth jazz plays. A classic comes together.

What is it with the head wounds in these movies?

While the characters are less than realistic (after all this is a film known domestically as Hot Handed God of Cops) it's not to say they aren't engaging. The typical plot of revenge, loyalty and justice plays out, but the leads do a good job of portraying two conflicted personalities at opposite ends of the same series of events. It may be trite with the elements of a loose cannon out for revenge, and a good man agonising over his actions; but it's a movie full of character, and they do a good job of not being drowned out by the pyrotechnics. The story itself doesn't stand up to much scrutiny at times, but the tone carries it off. Nobody seems to mind that Tequila took out a warehouse full of gangsters after being told to get off the case, maybe he charmed them into forgetting the weapons he signed out from the police armoury.

The soundtrack by Michael Gibbs helps it all come together, his jazz history provides a few somber tunes complimented by a tick-tock rhythm of percussion that builds towards the inevitable shoot outs. Of course those moments are what everyone is waiting for, and they don't disappoint. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the action had peaked early as the opening sequence involving a stake out gone wrong in a tea house is incredible - but this is just the beginning. Later set pieces involving exploding motor bikes, exploding cars, and exploding hospitals build on each previous sequence each time to one-up the excitement factor. The finale in particular pulls out all the stops as SWAT teams and hostage taking are thrown in - and it's rare to see an uncut tracking shot done in an action sequence, but they stage it perfectly. 

It's a shame that John Woo would later leave Hong Kong and try his hand at doing things the Hollywood way, but at least this is the perfect exit; the end of an era. It's an exercise in action magic - the best kind sensory overload where things are done with precision and mastery, and a true bullet ballet. The DVD label lists in under the "extreme" category, so I guess this isn't for everyone and maybe not a simple recommendation, something that could leave people shell shocked at times. But for Hong Kong cinema fans this is the top tier, the gold standard.