The Visual Sublime

‘Ten Films in Ten Days – Day 8: ‘Hard-Boiled’

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Hard Boiled (John Woo, Hong Kong, 1992)

 

I love action movies. Like musicals, they’re spectacular, rhythmic, visually inventive, and something of a lost art. It’s like filmmakers have forgotten how to do a shootout or a fight or a car chase in ways that rev up the senses. For a time, no one filmed action better than John Woo. He was clearly influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville, who made films that were sparer, neater, better. Woo in turn, for better AND worse, influenced Tarantino, Rodriguez and many others. Seeing the Woo-Chow Yun-Fat films in the early nineties was a thrilling revelation: the sheer inventiveness of shot after shot, often each a surprise, the whole ‘number’ thematically coherent, the calm cool presence of Chow Yun Fat himself, the musical structure of the scenes. New, thrilling, and you only have to look at them now to see how Tarantino stole everything from Woo. I also loved how these brilliant action sequences, often designated ‘operatic’ or ‘balletic’, were in turn strung together through the most melodramatic of structures (brotherly loyalties tied by being on different sides of the law in A Better Tomorrow; the blind nightclub singer in The Killer, the hospital setting in the last part of Hard-Boiled etc.) It’s hard to pick a favourite of Woo’s films with Chow Yun-Fat but today I choose Hard-Boiled, if only for the extraordinary sequence in the tea-rooms with the canary and for the equally extraordinary hospital shoot-out scene at the end. These are films that made me think of the visual sublime in films of that period, the way the camera would show violence and brutality, slow it down to make you see the beauty of the bodies and bullets in motion, and then cut from slow motion to normal speed…and splat! Awe and terror at the beauty and horror that is, followed by death, but in Woo’s case also accompanied by great wit. Some of the best action sequences ever filmed.

 

José Arroyo