John WooÂ’s 1992 Hard Boiled opens with a determined fist brutally slamming a drink-tumbler onto dark table-top and thus mixing a carbonated sluice of hard liquor, foisted by famed Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat and then thrown back furiously with a gutsy grimace before he exhales cigarette smoke and starts in on the clarinet — with some lite tune like “A Few of My Favorite Things” — at a smoky jazz-bar spot.
The image of delicate, melodic chops lapped up with high-proof alcohol and blown out in eighth notes and second-hand smoke nicely sets up John WooÂ’s morality tale of good-guy/bad-guy indistinction, like so many fast-cutting shots in his movies of birds launched into flight with bullets exploding in every feather-dusted fire-grazed direction.
Later, at an all-nite neon-cloaked dim-sum joint, Tequila (Yun-Fat) and his partner chat over pot-stickers in the wee hours about how great the food in Hong Kong is, like you canÂ’t get it anywhere else in the world. (The shadow of Hong Kong handed back to China is the subtext for this conversation, suggesting that these characters must soon decide to stay under China or break west.)
But the calming dim sum is just a front: Tequila eyeballs the action lining up at tea tables in the periphery, as patrons bring pet birds in cages and chat over food while handing each other tawdry manila envelopes bulging with paper.
Then, suddenly, the pot-stickers fly with caroming tea-kettles, and birds broken out of cages flap a hundred pairs of wings with ripped feathers and blasted cooking flour launched into a maelstrom of gunplay. The whole joint is crawling with undercover narcs and heavily armed bad guys. Super-stylized hell-on-earth rips open, with random homicide recouped for aesthetic brilliance like a ballistics waterfall, and bullet-holes rip the room in a cascade of bodies in explosively balletic melee. TequilaÂ’s guns — discharged sideways, crossways, and from every other cool angle — never seem to empty, even when he hurdles booths and navigates stairwells like a Cirque de Soleil acrobat, sliding into impossible crossfire to rain down death and dismay on the enemy.
And, it turns out, the enemy was just another undercover, whom Tequila dispatches with a spat-out toothpick and bloody backblast into his ghostly, flour-caked face. How he keeps the toothpick in his mouth through the entire fight, who can tell? But the police action has been in vain, as Tequila loses good cops and good friends only to take out one of their own posing as a bad guy.
“Tequila” is a stand-in for “Tango” or “Cash,” for IceMan, McBain, and Callahan, all the hyper-cool, super-tough action stars of exploitative American cinema. But Hard Boiled ends up a subtle critique of the American action movie, even as a tsunami of explosions and gun blasts blow the viewer’s eyes wide open in rhythmic regularity. This is the sheer genius of John Woo, to make a movie originally titled “Hot-Handed God of Cops,” with a body count of 307 (according to Wikipedia), and turn his bad-ass action-movie sources inside-out, to do American action one better while commenting on how futile and silly the scenarios can be.
From this, moments of transcendent madness way beyond Woo’s American production Face/Off (1997), where a kid listens to “Over the Rainbow” on earphones while mommy and daddy blow away feds with shotties and grenade launchers.
Truly, when I saw Hard Boiled years ago at the Film Center Hong Kong Festival and then at a midnight Village showing, it blew my mind with the possibilities, with the kind of bad action crap I grew up watching but now re-mixed through a suave Asian playboy sensibility replete with jazz, hard drinking, and fashion anachronisms aÂ’plenty.
Oh, and of course, a great knack for the comic homicidal one-liner, the spasmodic death throes, the last-stand speeches, the stray “COVER ME” that bespeaks homo-filial violence. And such a comfort to know that, while I wasted my time with video games and bad movies at the mall as a teenager, someone across the globe was watching too, and taking notes to turn the action movie right on its head while multiplying “bad-ass” by a factor of 100.
And, later still, others watched Woo to re-make and re-mix, to feed Hong Kong action back to America as our latest pulp fiction, lifted from others who lifted from us.
The recent release of Dragon Dynasty’s two-disc “ultimate” Hard Boiled had me hit the Uptown Border’s bookstore for that, plus the DVD premiere of England’s Hot Fuzz (2007). A reminder in Austria some weeks ago, the bar postcard emblazoned in German:
“Zwei Bad Boys räumen auf!” (My trans. — “Two Bad Boys go-off/throw-down!”)
And the poster-image has stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost flying into nowhere from out of nowhere, sui generis, in a fiery haze, complete with mirror-plated shades and unbreakable toothpicks jutting from the maw.
Of course, the reference here is to the Bad Boys franchise (1995/2003), with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. But the United Kingdom re-casts an American action “classic” with all bobbies blasting, as the impeccably mannered British get in on the typically American dirty-work of good-old-fashioned ass-kicking.
The scenario is standard: Fish Out of Water, a staple of comedy. Here, a good, smart London cop gets re-assigned because heÂ’s simply too good, ending up in a country village that prides itself on winning prizes for being such a gem of pastoral Britain seemingly frozen in time.
Once Nicholas Angel (Pegg) arrives in the idyllic township of Sandford, Gloucestershire, the movie plays out a bit like The Odd Couple. Officer Angel is a by-the-books super-pro (both at the gritty stuff and the paper work incurred by field action), trained in urban pacification and riot control. He finds himself paired up with one of various village drunks, an oafish-lout wannabe whom he busts on his first night in town for public inebriation.
But partner Danny Butterman (Frost) is the police chiefÂ’s son, and his co-workers are an odd, sleepy, lackadaisical, slack-jawed lot who break at 11 a.m. for pints at the pub, all to AngelÂ’s chagrin.
Even so, Angel goes about his job with a stiff upper lip. And when dead bodies start piling up in innocent little Sandford, he uncovers the dark secret behind the townÂ’s paradisical cover-story.
Which of course all leads to an apocalyptic gun-battle finale, and a DAMN GOOD one like out of Sam Peckinpah, in which Angel and Butterman strap on an arsenal and unload crates of buckshot in the town plaza. And never-ending gunfights of course lead to even longer end-game fist-fights when the ammo runs out, so Angel wrestles his nemesis in a miniature outdoor model of Sandford, visually tearing apart the fantasy of small-town England as un-touched Eden.
At one point in the film, Angel and Butterman stop at a smallish grocery store, and Danny amuses himself by reading off the videos for sale, vintage American and Hong Kong action flicks. Later, he asks Angel many juvenile, show-and-tell questions about being a cop, like “You ever fired two guns whilst flying through the air? Â… Is it true that there is a place in a manÂ’s head, that if you shoot it, it will blow up?” He canÂ’t believe it when Angel admits to never having seen Bad Boys II or Point Break. But eventually, Butterman and Angel fulfill the phallic, homo-erotic goal of the action/buddy flick: “Aufräumen,” as the German-language ads put it. To get off by going off.
And Edenic England — like the hinterlands of Illinois or China — surely has been touched by globalization, by the preponderance of American action movies and real-life weaponry circulating the Earth. In fact, with Hot Fuzz, theyÂ’ve even re-mixed triumphal American visual narratives of violence and gunplay, like a full-bodied ale that sends you under the pub counter as a delicious one-too-many shot.

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