Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter rewatches the John Woo masterpiece Hard-Boiled with commentary from the man himself.
When you think about the best action movies of all time, the odds are that one or two of the titles swirling around in your brain as contenders were directed by John Woo. From The Killer (1989) to Face/Off (1997) — with other gems landing before, in between, and after — Woo is well-established as a top-tier action filmmaker. One of his best remains 1992’s Hard-Boiled, and it’s such an endlessly rewatchable modern classic that I decided to give it yet another spin. This time, though, I did so with the commentary track from Criterion’s long out-of-print DVD release.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for Hard-Boiled!
Commentators: John Woo (director), Terence Chang (producer), David Kehr (critic), Roger Avary (filmmaker)
1. Woo recalls drinking tequila in Hong Kong by adding soda, covering it with a napkin, and then slamming the glass down to stir up some bubbles. “It would make you feel cool and feel like a man.”
2. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is an inspiration in various ways including the beat where William Holden’s character drinks an entire bottle of tequila — hence the lead character here named Tequila (Chow Yun-fat).
3. Woo interviewed real cops while researching the film including one detective who was known for being extremely tough towards the bad guys. “But in the meantime, he’s a drummer,” so Woo shifted that into a cop who plays music in a jazz club.
4. The script initially focused on a villain who was poisoning formula bottles and killing babies. The cast was signed featuring Tony Leung as the baby-killing psycho, and they filmed the first scene at the tea house — it was scheduled for demolition so they only had five days to make use of it. It was only after filming that shootout that Woo and Chang decided to change that entire plotline. Woo’s big concern was it being a “bad influence” and inspiring copycat baby killers. They kept the teahouse scene, obviously, but changed up the motivation and plot details that followed including shifting Leung’s character into an undercover cop named Alan.
5. Avary introduces himself as a twenty-eight-year-old who directed Killing Zoe (1993), co-wrote Pulp Fiction (1994), and is in the middle of writing a script for Woo titled Hatchet Man. What?! A quick Google search brings up little aside from this description filled with bullshit details including an attached cast with names like Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, and Meg Ryan. The page lists production problems as follows: “No blatant problems or delays per se, but half the grips and gaffers chose to be listed in the final credits as Alan Smithee.” This doesn’t make any sense as the film was never made, so yes, this Hollywood’s Coming site is an intentional joke… which means we don’t actually have details on Hatchet Man.
6. The bartender Mr. Woo wasn’t in the shooting script, but Woo added it on short notice and played the character himself. His acting inspiration? Robert Duvall.
7. “Logic is very boring,” says Woo in regard to how he crafts his characters and scenes. “When I’m shooting I do what I feel. I’m free and open.” He adds that he also has no love for film theory or proper film language and instead simply uses what he wants.
8. Woo says Anthony Wong is a big fan of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and would often try to imitate them in his acting. “He also had his own style.”
9. Woo prefers filming his movies in sequence, not just for momentum but also so he knows to make what comes next better. Hard-Boiled has three major action sequences, so filming in sequence lets Woo know that the warehouse scene has to improve upon the opening teahouse scene — and that the end hospital shootout needs to top both.
10. Woo learned while filming the warehouse scene that Barry Wong, the film’s writer, had died. “He was a true talent which I really admired.”
11. Avary says that one of the appeals of Woo’s action sequences is how “they don’t feel like they’ve been storyboarded and planned out and structured so long in advance.” Woo adds “We just create as we go.”
12. Regarding Hong Kong stuntmen, Avary says he’s heard they’re paid all year long as opposed to by stunt or per movie, “but come that day when John Woo points at you and says ‘okay you’re up, fall off of this building and land on your head right here’ they gotta do it.” Chang adds that Woo believes stuntmen should be appreciated for what they do.
13. Mad Dog is played by Philip Kwok who also served as the film’s action coordinator. He was an action star in his own right back in the 70s. Woo added the character as Johnny Wong’s (Anthony Wong) sidekick as Wong is “a good actor, but his image is so weak.” Kwok’s Mad Dog offers a balance to that.
14. Chang says Woo has no actual interest in the Triads or other gangsters and that he only uses them because they’re “colorful characters” that allow him ways to expand on his preferred themes of friendship and loyalty. Despite this, Woo was criticized for his earlier films as supposedly glamorizing the criminal element, and that’s part of why he focused this feature on the police.
15. The face-off between Alan and his elder in the warehouse led to some debate as Woo insisted that Alan show some tears after having to kill the old man. It’s emotion in an action beat that could arguably give a character’s truth away, but again, he says doesn’t care about logic in a sequence. They shot two versions, one with tears and one without, and Woo kept the latter.
16. The warehouse shootout was originally supposed to be two set-pieces as the back half was going to take place on a cliff outside the warehouse. Tequila and Alan were meant to have their face-off there, but Woo was unable to find a suitable location. The scene would have seen Tequila almost fall only to be saved by Alan, but they instead shifted it to Alan declining to shoot Tequila in the head.
17. Avary called Woo up “the other night,” as you do, and he got the filmmaker’s answering machine. It featured music from Lawrence of Arabia. He shares this anecdote as a way of describing Woo’s absolute and pure love of movies.
18. Woo believes that rather than be mere tools in a film “actors are the soul of a movie.”
19. Kehr’s first exposure to Woo was a screening of A Better Tomorrow (1986) at a film festival, but he recalls how many American critics were introduced via a midnight screening of The Killer (1989) at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992. Audiences there expected to laugh as they were primed for some mild novelty, but while they chuckled through the first half-hour the theater became more focused and attentive as the film went on.
20. Chang says roughly seventy percent of the film was shot in an abandoned Coca-Cola factory. They turned it into the warehouse, the hospital, and more.
21. Woo’s freestyle approach is part of why he says he overbudgets his movies. Chang adds that while Woo may brag about it, he actually brings his movies in on or under budget.
22. Woo says he uses the hospital as a microcosm for society as the patients are merely pawns trapped at the whim of those around them.
23. Woo doesn’t watch films with a critical lens and instead tries “to get something from everything,” from movies to Van Gogh paintings to Bugs Bunny cartoons.
24. “All the guns come from London,” says Chang regarding the film’s large arsenal. Most of them are real and required special licensing, inspection by the Hong Kong police, and daily inventories. Avary adds that he’ll never make another movie where a gun is fired as it eats up three hours of your day. “That’s three hours you could have spent working with an actor, and that’s the fun part of directing a movie is working with the actors. Forget this king of action shit.”
25. Chang doesn’t have much connection with Hong Kong gangs, but he does point out how come it is having to pay gangsters and hoodlums for “protection” while shooting in public locations. You pay one gang to keep the others away from your production, but it’s gotten worse over the years. This film saw gang members come to them — to the real teahouse and the hospital set — and ask for money, “and you just got to pay them off, all of them.”
26. Regarding action choreography, Woo is “very sensitive to all the movement around me, from the actors, from the set, from the crew, from anything — a bird or a fly. They admittedly stimulate me to create some action movement.”
27. The shot with Tequila running towards the camera with the baby in his arms and explosions at his back was shot twice as Woo wasn’t happy with the first take — the explosions were too far behind Chow. For the second take, he took control of the explosives button, per Chang, and set it off far closer than Chow was expecting. “He was really running for his life.” Chow apparently was professional enough to ask how it looked after the shot was finished, “but then he turns around and says ‘that motherfucker.'”
28. The script called for Alan to die in the end, preferably in a self-sacrificial way, but the film’s producers along with Chow convinced Woo that the character should live to “create more hope and be more positive.” Woo was a hard sell, but he decided to shoot the epilogue revealing the character’s fate.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Who is that guy who just stood up?!”
“I don’t care about logic.”
“I disagree with John when he says the police are useless.”
“Hand me a stuntman and I can do almost anything.”
“Woo may be the master of a certain degree of ultra-violence, but that does not mean that he endorses widespread, violent, irresponsible behavior the way a lot of directors who imitated his work have.”
“Here’s a little sadism for ya.”
“There’s something always gnawing at Chow.”
“I hate totalitarianism.”
“Now this is a scene that’s going to strike a lot of people as insanely excessive…”
“You never wonder if they’re gonna run out of bullets because Woo has established that this isn’t a world where that’s even a possibility.”
I’ve said this before, but hoo boy is Hard-Boiled an absolute action masterpiece. The fact that it captivates and mesmerizes even while watching with a commentary track in place of the film’s dialogue and score is unusual, but it speaks to Woo’s mastery of the form here. The action and emotion are out there for all to see, and the commentary sees its speakers highlighting both with praise and observation.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.