'John Woo is God' screamed the UK posters with somewhat gleeful blasphemously. Well, not quite, but in his long-passed Hong Kong prime he could certainly give the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse a run for their money.
The plot is elementary: renegade cop finds his destiny entwined with a mysterious hitman as he tries to track down a gang of gunrunners. Respect for human life is pretty low on the agenda: the cops here are more worried about the one of their own who gets killed than the couple of hundred innocent bystanders that get caught up in the crossfire (when one of the villains uses a waiter as a shield, it's the cop's bullets that kill him, while the logic of the police evacuating the patients of a hospital directly into the line of fire of several machine gun toting maniacs is bonkers even by HK action-movie standards). Although there are undercurrents of (highly selective) morality and divided loyalties, what Woo is about is action, with Hard Boiled offering more firepower in its two hours than Hollywood did in the entire 1990s.
There are some dazzling setpieces, with an interesting move from slow-motion to normal speed within individual shots, and for stylish violence Woo is hard to beat but, unfortunately, he overplays his hand with the hospital finale where the bodycount moves into four figures and the constant need to top himself leads to overkill, both literal and figurative. It's here that the film really needs to take a breather for a reel or so - the action, though occasionally repetitive (there is at least one Nexican standoff too many), is not the problem, the pacing is. The action may be bigger, the body count may be higher, but compared to the brilliantly staged raid on the arms warehouse - one of the great action scenes of the decade - it tends to lose your involvement.
The two leads play well off each other, Chow Yun Fat exuding star quality as the maverick cop and Tony Leung excellent as the hitman/undercover cop all too aware that he has lost his identity and morbidly aware of the possibility of an anonymous death, and for all my reservations about the second half, this is still easily one of the best action movies currently available on DVD - but be careful which version you get...
Prism and Tartan's budget release only offers the dubbed English language version, and it's not a good dub - and to make matters worse, the film is cropped into fullframe from its original widescreen ratio; Tartan's original release had the proper widescreen ratio with Cantonese soundtrack and non-removeable subtitles as well as an interview with John Woo and the UK trailer (though their initial release only included a trailer); while The weinstein Company's Dragon Dynasty two-disc US NTSC DVD includes plenty of extras (audio commentary by Bey Logan, interviews with Woo, Terence Chang, Philip Chan and Kwok Choi, a location guide and two trailers) but the subtitles translate the dubbed English soundtrack rather than the Cantonese original and the transfer is slightly cropped. The Dragon Dynasty US Blu-ray drops the interviews with Chang, Chan and Choi as well as the trailers and has a very weak upscaled transfer.