[1 August 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s fascinating how quickly he ascended to superstar filmmaker status. It’s also intriguing how, by coming to Hollywood, his cinematic fortunes faded. At one time, he was the “it” director, a full blown visionary turning the dull as dishwater crime/action film into a luminous illustration of amazing motion picture pyro-techniques. Now, John Woo has returned to China to make his latest movie, an adventure centered on the Battle of Red Cliffs during the Three Kingdoms period of Ancient China. Such period piecing may seem odd to those who only know him as a meticulous choreographer of onscreen gunplay, but the truth is that the 61 year old had a varied career in many movie genres before taking up the heroic bloodshed cause. From Hong Kong martial arts to oddly romantic comedies, he was never really defined by the subjects he considered – until he amplified the artistry in ammunition. Now, he’s been branded a manufacturer of machismo, when he’s actually far more diverse than that.
Proof of this definable dichotomy arrives in the form of the latest releases (numbers 15 and 16) in the ongoing Dragon Dynasty series. Spanning two decades in his career, and covering both his days delivering definite kung fu fighting (1979’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry) and the last word in balls out bullet time (the 1992 masterwork Hard Boiled), these new DVDs suggest the start of a reconciliation of Woo’s overall oeuvre. Indeed, the last 15 years have so defined the man (thanks in large part to his trials in Tinsel Town), that many will be amazed that he even made movies prior to 1986’s A Better Tomorrow. And yet the signature approach that would come to be copied and mocked is there – in every swashbuckling swordfight, in every vow of undying friendship, in every muzzle to muzzle standoff. While the category may have changed, Woo stayed stalwart. It’s the reason he’s still so well regarded today.
Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)
On the day of his wedding, Kao’s entire family is wiped out in an act of revenge by former associate Pai. The killer’s goal – to reclaim the estate he believes he was swindled out of. Desperate to reclaim his honor and get his own retribution, the dispossessed dandy looks to hire the best swords in China to act as his seconds. Initially, he has his eye on Chang, a former fighter with the enigmatic name ‘The Magic Sword’. Unfortunately, no matter the offer, our former champion will not come out of retirement. Kao next targets paid assassin Tsing, an executioner easily swayed by alcohol and money. Through a series of setbacks and subplots, Chang must fight another maniacal mercenary named Pray. Realizing his skills are important, and after Kao’s martial arts teacher is killed by Pai’s men, the one time legend agrees to take on the vile villain. Tsing comes along for the sport of the slaughter – or does he? In this ruthless world where men can be bought and bartered for like slaves, and women are only considered when they accept cash for their favors, it will take a Last Hurrah for Chivalry to determine the fate of all involved – antagonist, protagonist and opportunist.
Indeed, once our hero Chang takes on the self-assured Pray in a one on one battle for weapon wielding bragging rights, the filmmaker famous for his many cinematic stunts comes shining through. We get the brilliant back and forth between opponents, swords swinging in drama-intensifying languid lunges. Then, when our unintentional duo takes on Pai, having to first circumvent his entire staff of hired guns, idiosyncratic killers (the sleeping Wizard is a particular hoot) and fireball blazing finale, it’s like we’re watching The Killer transported back to ancient times. In fact, there’s a great deal of splatterific bloodshed here, with bodies being pierced and torsos being sliced in tasty torrents of arterial spray. The two on one take down of Pai is particularly violent, as is the finale where a certain supposed nobleman shows his true colors and becomes a limb lopping ‘demon’. Some may feel the story too stereotypical, repeating themes and specific character types from other Wu Xia Pian entries, but thanks to Woo’s desire to bend the rules and bring on the grue, we’ve got an artful action adventure that’s as suspenseful as it is spectacular. Indeed, you will care about the fate of our two fast friends as the storyline winds down. Their final feat of virtue satisfies as it saddens.
Hard Boiled (1992)
Hong Kong is suffering through an unbelievable string of bloody mass killings, most associated with Triad activity and the selling of illegal arms. On the side of the criminals is Uncle Hoi, an old school mobster who treats his henchmen and hitmen like family. On the fringes fighting his way in is Johnny Wong, a flashy amoral shark who wants the lucrative gun running racket all to himself. He hopes to accomplish this task by having noted Hoi goon Tony turn on his father-like employer. Little do they know, but this smooth assassin is actually an undercover cop, trying to infiltrate and dismantle the operation from the inside. In addition to this down low lawman is the jazz-loving, unlucky in love time bomb named Tequila. A far too dedicated policeman, this obsessed officer won’t stop until he discovers Wong’s whereabouts, including his cache of arms, and puts a stop to his entire operation once and for all. Naturally, he winds up needing Tony’s help, and the two form an unlikely alliance to destroy the demented criminal once and for all. While one of our heroes may be in too deep to remember what side he’s on, the other is clearly bucking for payback. After all, he’s Hard Boiled, all the way.
This is definitely cinema as a culmination, since Woo is rehashing themes he explored in the Better Tomorrow films as well as in The Killer. But since he had glorified the underworld in his previous efforts, he wanted to make one for “the good guys”, and thus we have this twisted buddy picture in which two valiant officers working different sides of the street conspire to take down a Don who has apparently seen one too many episodes of Miami Vice, considering his wardrobe. There’s a lot of talk about honor and face, vengeance denied and restrictive rules busted wide open. Though Chow-Yun Fat is the rogue element here, playing a policeman who won’t rest until a gun running ring is stopped, its Tony Leung who constantly captures our eye. We know Fat is a badass, but Leung is all over the map, from conscientious hitman to misguided psycho, and many layers in between. As a hero, Chow chews gum and kicks butt. As an almost anti-hero, Tony is terrific, keeping us guessing over his loyalties until almost the very end. Like Sam Raimi before him, Woo gets the decided (dis)honor of being so imitated and copied that his original vision can appear practically clichéd. But when you experience the real deal, the kinetic kick is overpowering. Hard Boiled is not only a great genre effort, it’s a great movie, period. Anyone who wants to argue that better be loaded for bear and ready to rumble.
In the case of both films, Dragon Dynasty does such an amazing job with the digital presentation and image transfer. Both movies show some signs of age, but that’s obviously a source situation, not the fault of some remastering engineer. Indeed, fans wondering if Hard Boiled’s print is preferable to the long OOP Criterion version, the answer is a secure “Yes”. It has never looked this clean and clear, (even though some sites have argued over aspect ratio issues). And since Last Hurrah is a real unknown quantity, its offering is an optical revelation. Both DVDs deliver stellar added content, including commentaries, interviews and production documentaries. They illustrate how hard it was to achieve Woo’s uber-violent designs, and how tirelessly he worked with his actors to achieve both realism and a sense of resplendence. As more of his older movies are released, it is possible this master of the Hong Kong crime film will develop a more well-rounded reputation. But if all he had to rely on were these two films, Woo would have nothing to worry about. Both Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Hard Boiled represent to the best of the best.