Whenever I hear someone say Transformers or another big budget, Hollywood blockbuster of its ilk is a great action movie (or even entertaining) I tell them to watch Hard Boiled (1992) by John Woo. No one can tell me it still doesn't blow out of the water any of today's shaky-cam, slow-mo, mindless, blow-something-up-every-five-minutes bore fests. In terms of pure action, Hard Boiled is still hard to top.
After his partner is killed in a sting gone wrong, police inspector "Tequila" Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat) develops a vendetta against arms dealer Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong) and moves against him. Meanwhile, Alan (Tony Leung), an assassin loyal to another arms dealer, "Uncle" Hoi (Kwan Hoi Sang), is courted by Johnny Wong because the gangster is impressed by his skill. Eventually, Tequila and Alan's paths cross. Countless bullets are expended, and the body count soars in the process.
The plot's thin (reportedly the script was drastically rewritten just before filming because the original plot involving a psycho who poisons baby formula was too repugnant). The narrative is used for little more than to justify how the characters end up in different places, and some aspects, such as Tequila's relationship with his girlfriend (Teresa Chang), feel as if they're missing scenes.
The actors make up for the vagueness. Yun-Fat gets to be something of a Hong Kong Dirty Harry, guns blazing, grizzled, tough, no time for procedure. Leung plays several angles, and you sense he is morally torn by the choices he has to make. Sang is like the Asian version of Don Corleone, a criminal but not without his code of honor, and Wong is suitably slimy. Even the smaller roles impress: criminal muscle Mad Dog, informant Foxy, and the police superintendent manage to distinquish.
But no one watches Hard Boiled for the story or characters; it's the acton and gunfighting. As Johnny Wong states, "In this world, the man who holds the guns rules the world." Everything gets shot up. Someone else probably said it, but it fits: it's a ballet of bullets. The shootouts remain to this day some of the best action sequences I've ever seen.
It's been said endless action get repetitive and boring, but Woo avoids that pitfall by providing enough breaks and mixing up the scenario. No action scene is like the one that follows (apart from the use of guns). Woo is inventive with his camera, wooshing, diving, and following his protagonists. It's not just two groups standing still and firing at each other while the camera goes bezerk to be "realistic." Woo manages to keep the camera steady so the action is clear and visible. The slow motion is used for more than "Hey! Neat!" moments. It shows off important details and action we otherwise would have missed. We get characters sliding down stairs, swinging from the ceiling, attacking on motorcycles, fighting hand-to-hand, and more. In one scene, the police evacuate a maternity full newborns by rapelling down the side of a building. Woo also mixes up the locales: tea house, small boat, warehouse, hospital, morgue, bridge. It never gets monotonous.
Woo doesn't shy away from showing the consequences of violence. Blood flies everywhere, innocent people are caught in the crossfire, and property is destroyed. It's not sanitized like similar Hollywood productions of mass destruction. Directors like Roland Emmerich, Stephen Sommers, and Michael Bay usually gloss over this side of the equation, making all the violence we see look fun and safe. While the action set pieces here are outlandish and over-the-top, they carry real weight behind them. The effects are tangible. People bleed and hurt.
So that's Hard Boiled, which still holds up as one of my favorite action movies. Forget the tame theatrics of formualic blockbusters. This mops the floor with just about anything Hollywood has churned out in the last twenty years. If you're going to concentrate solely on action, it better stand out and show me something I haven't already seen a million times. Hard Boiled does just that.