Before violent action excess became the norm—extended, shapeless, exhausting sequences of dudes blamming other dudes ad nauseam, wholly lacking in visual logic, poetry, or wit—there was John Woo, one of the princes of Hong Kong’s action-film golden age. Don’t even try to tally the body count in Hard Boiled—you’ll run out of fingers and toes before you know it. The criminally charismatic Hong Kong star Chow Yun Fat is Tequila, a cop who plays jazz clarinet during his off hours and improvises similarly when he’s on the job: an early shootout in a mob-ridden café festooned with birdcages results in the death of a cop, and it’s Tequila’s fault. Eventually, he’ll tangle with a sly junior triad member on the rise, played by another actor with soulfulness to burn: Tony Leung’s Alan is a somber gangster for sure, and one with a secret. (At the end of the day, he retreats to his boat, where he solemnly folds an origami crane for each man he’s killed.) Woo’s violence—in this and in other action films he made before the era of reunification, several of them starring Chow—is absolutely over the top, a jamboree of spurting arteries and blown-out kneecaps. But his artistry lies in the way he shapes a sequence for maximum kinetic effect, creating mosaics of sound and action that leave you feeling exhilarated rather than beaten up.
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