Hard Boiled (dir. John Woo, 1992)
“Baby, I wish you were my baby” – Dudez A Plenti’ (one of the best Late Night sketches ever)
The history of cinema is littered with spectacular on screen pairings. Whether it’s the wry chemistry of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, the wary partnership of Robert Redford and Paul Newman, or the sheer mayhem of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, the on-screen duo is a tried and true trope of the movies. And it’s kind of cool to think about just how closely an actor can be tied to their counterpart. Try thinking of Woody Allen without Diane Keaton. It’s impossible right? There’s something about the comfort between those two actors, an unspoken understanding, that brings out a depth in each character you couldn’t achieve if they were working alone.
So… it was during a recent viewing of the 1992 John Woo film Hard Boiled that I discovered another incredible film duo. A film duo that, until now, I don’t believe has been given the credit they truly deserve. I’m taking of course about Chow Yun-Fat and a newborn baby.
Let me explain.
Hard Boiled is one of the last films the director John Woo made before moving to America to work for the Hollywood Studio system. By 1992 he had firmly established himself as a visionary action director, particularly for creating what’s referred to as “Gun-Fu”. Woo began his career as an assistant at Shaw Brothers Studio, a Chinese production company known especially for their Kung Fu films. With his 1986 film A Better Tomorrow Woo attempted to recreate the balletics and choreography of Kung-Fu films, except, instead of swords or feet, he decided to use guns, lots and lots of guns. In fact, the urban legend goes that The Killer (Woo’s second feature with Chow Yun-Fat) features more bullets than any film in history. There’s no way this can possibly be true, considering a film like Saving Private Ryan has hundreds of thousands of men firing guns instead of just one, but still, lots and lots of guns.
I first came to John Woo through Mission Impossible 2. Mission Impossible 2 received mediocre reviews upon its’ release and honestly I can’t remember a whole lot of specifics about the film, save for one scene. Tom Cruise is in a Mexican standoff (a trademark of Woo) on a beach and his gun lies at his feet in the sand. After a moment of tense dialog, Tom Cruise kicks the ground, the gun launches straight up into his hand, and he blasts away the bad guy. (If, for whatever reason, you’re interested in the exact gun used in this scene here’s a site that goes into detail) I can’t remember if I groaned or cheered in that moment, but since then the ridiculous audacity that Woo showed in that scene has stuck with me. Here was a man who could care less about the rules of the real world (i.e. gravity). Yet unlike a lesser director who tries to sneak the ridiculous past you, John Woo stands up on the table and shoves absurdity in your face.
And that brings me back to Chow Yun-Fat and a newborn baby. The climax of Hard Boiled is a thirty minute plus action sequence in a crowded hospital. A gangster named Johnny is wiring the hospital with C-4 while Chow Yun Fat and his partner Tony Leung attempt to evacuate all the patients and mow down any criminal in their way. Long story short, there’s a wing of the hospital full of newborns. The police get most of the babies out. But during this endless shootout Chow Yun-Fat comes across one sleeping baby who’s been forgotten. Taking the baby gently in his arms, Chow Yun-Fat plugs the child’s ears with cotton swabs. Then it’s back to the action. Yun-Fat continues to jump through plate glass windows and shoot hordes of bad guys with a dribbling newborn under his arm. I mean things get so violent that blood splatters on the newborns’ smiling face. It’s all extremely bizarre. And it’s not just Chow Yun-Fat who does all the work. When Yun-Fat’s pants catch on fire he’s saved form third degree burns by the urine of the newborn. Seriously.
The climax of the scene involves Chow Yun-Fat ripping a electrical cord from a wall and using it to bungee jump from a second story window onto the sidewalk below with the baby in hand! He literally lands on the ground right as the building is blown to smithereens in a hail of glass and flame… and he’s holding a baby!
Now, all this could be giant metaphor for something. You know, the innocence of Chinese children being corrupted by violence. The lax health care standards in modern Hong Kong. The value society should place on individual life no matter the cost. I don’t really know. But I will say that Chow Yun-Fat and a baby are a pairing on par with Astair and Roberts. They play off one another. With a baby in his arms suddenly Chow Yun-Fat’s character takes on new layers. In a storm of mayhem the baby offers reason to fight… and fight he does.
A lot of action films include scenes that take place in factories where it seems the workers main task is to create sparks. In every action movie factory there’re always twenty guys standing around welding.
I’d love to see a twenty year reunion of the Hard Boiled cast. We’d get Chow Yun-Fat who’d be older but without huge physical changes and this baby who’d now be a twenty year old man. Weird.
Chow Yun-Fat plays jazz clarinet at the beginning of the film in a Hong Kong night club. And while the scene was completely ludicrous I can only assume he wasn’t charging $135 a seat like some celebrities.