Weekend Retrospective - Bullet Ballet


"John Woo is..."

These words appear on a series of title cards that are show in a trailer for this Hong King cinema classic. The press quote they've chosen to splice into the footage sums up the madness that is Hard Boiled, a crime thriller created by a master at the height of his powers. It's also described as 'gob smacking mayhem' and 'more exciting than a dozen Die Hards'. All of this hyperbole seems ridiculous but it's a pretty apt description of the story's content, an exaggerated and often excessive exercise in explosive action.

After setting the stage with the previous action greats A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, John Woo returned to the heroic bloodshed genre he helped create to give us 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 tales. Ideas of loyalty and corruption would be explored one more time, while giving the forces of law and order a chance to be the heroes.

After starring in those previous movies Chow Yun Fat was brought on board to team up with Tony Leung who had worked with Woo on his Vietnam war drama Bullet In The Head. They could have been in a real version of A Better Tomorrow III instead of the version we got after Tsui Hark quit working with Woo, so it's nice to see them crossing paths here. Of course this is not as dark and melodramatic as anything that he'd directed earlier with these actors. The end result is a comic book style action adventure, full of cop movie tropes and Triad mole subplots. The influences of Le Samourai are present once again with another lone outsider fighting his own nature, but the story has a far more pulpy feel to it.

The tone in general is still pretty bleak at times, however while the action and violence is as visceral as ever, the central characters feel less realistic. There's a broader sense of humour in places, and it feels more colourful. But this works with the material which includes an under cover police drama about secret weapons caches and battles against eye patch wearing henchmen. John Woo's approach was to create a Dirty Harry style plot after all the gangster stories, and he goes well beyond this goal. The character names give you an idea of what to expect. Tony Leung's troubled under cover officer 'Leung' takes on Chow Yun Fat's detective 'Tequila' as they battle for the most charismatic lead. Meanwhile Anthony Wong's ruthless arms dealer ... 'Wong' chews the scenery at every opportunity, planning a mob takeover involving a huge stash of weapons. Thousands of bullet squibs are used, large amounts of slow motion is employed, and plenty of smooth jazz plays. As this all combines an unapologetically gratuitous classic comes begins to form.

The characters may be less than realistic, but this is a film known domestically as Hot Handed God of Cops. That's not to say they aren't engaging or uncharismatic. A standard story of revenge, loyalty and justice plays out, but the cast does a good job at providing a central core of heroes and villains. In particular the two leads do a great job portraying conflicted personalities as they struggle through the same events from opposite angles. It may be a little trite with a loose cannon out for vengeance and a good man agonising over the morality of his actions; but it's a movie full of personality. They never get drowned out by all the pyrotechnics. The story itself doesn't hold up to much scrutiny in some places, but the overall tone carries it off. Nobody seems to mind that Tequila took out a warehouse full of gangsters after being ordered off the case ... maybe he just charmed them into forgetting all the weapons he signed out from the police armoury.

The soundtrack by Michael Gibbs helps all of this come together. His jazz history provides a few somber tunes to compliment the darker moments, while he uses the tick-tock rhythm of percussion to build towards all the inevitable shoot outs. There are a few moments that feel out of place because of the instruments used, but generally it works against the images of sinister motorcycle gang formations and paper cranes hanging ominously. It mixes the more human elements at the Jazz Club with the outlandish sequences in which entire factories are set alight and endless waves of goons are despatched.

Of course those are the moments everyone is waiting for, and they certainly don't disappoint. During the first few minutes you'd be forgiven for thinking that the action had peaked early. The opening sequence involving a tea house stake out gone wrong is incredible - but this is just as taste of things to come. Later set pieces involving exploding motor bikes, exploding cars, and exploding hospitals all build on the previous sequences, each time increasing the excitement factor and the spectacle. The huge finale in particular pulls out all the stops as SWAT team breaches and hostage taking scenes are thrown in - the scale and complexity of the action is always impressive. This is certainly true during an uncut tracking shot in the third act, it's unusual to see in an action film but they stage it perfectly, upping the ante in terms of pure action and tension building. 

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. Its' 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. It's a true bullet ballet. The label for some home releases lists in under the "extreme" category, so I guess this ma not be for everyone rather than a simple recommendation. Something like this could leave people shell shocked and disturbed at times. But for Hong Kong cinema fans that need a gun play fix this is the top tier; the gold standard and a crowing achievement in a series of already great directorial efforts.