Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Hard Boiled: Criterion (1992)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision - As a cop, he has brains, brawn, and an instinct to kill.

Violence as poetry, rendered by a master—brilliant and passionate, John Woo’s Hard Boiled tells the story of jaded detective "Tequila" Yuen (played with controlled fury by action superstar Chow Yun-fat). This dizzying odyssey through the world of Hong Kong Triads, undercover agents, and frenzied police raids culminates unforgettably in the breathless hospital sequence. More than a cops-and-bad-guys story, Hard Boiled continually startles with originality and dark humor.

Director: John Woo
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung, Teresa Mo, Philip Chan, Anthony Wong, Kwan Hoi-Shan.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1; audio Cantonese Digital Mono, English Dubbed Digital Mono; subtitles English; single sided - dual layered; 26 chapters; rated R; 126 min.; $39.95; street date 6/10/98; Out-of-Print.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by John Woo, producer Terence Chang, filmmaker Roger Avery and critic Dave Kehr; Trailers for 11 of John Woo's Hong Kong action classics; A student film by John Woo; Guide to Hong Kong crime films; Essays on Hard Boiled by David Chute.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C-/D+/B

If I recall correctly, I first became aware of John Woo's work with the release of Hard Target in 1993. That movie actually impressed me to a fair degree; while it clearly wasn't a classic, it certainly offered a big step up from the usually unwatchable Jean-Claude Van Damme fare. Woo's next American production, Broken Arrow, however, was less stimulating. I should probably see the movie again, but I thought it seemed predictable and largely uncompelling.

My personal breakthrough in regard to Woo really came in 1997 when he released Face/Off. I viewed this production skeptically because the previews made it look absolutely ludicrous. However, when I actually saw the film, I was completely entranced. How entranced? Well, the left-front speaker in the theater kept kicking in and out, something that normally would have driven me to distraction and would have forced me to speak to management. During F/O, however, I stayed in my seat and ignored it; I didn't want to miss a second!

In the years since, I've seen F/O discussed and often dismissed by Woo fans who more strongly espouse his Hong Kong films. Prior to the release of F/O - around 1995, I think - I actually saw two of Woo's other movies, The Killer and Hard Boiled. To be frank, neither did a whole lot for me. Nonetheless, I decided it was about time I gave at least one of them another shot through DVD, so I picked up a copy of Hard Boiled.

And you know what? It still doesn't do much for me. I should really like HB, for it seems to have all of the component that I enjoy, especially in Woo's almost nonstop action. But the movie leaves me curiously flat; despite all of the well-executed pyrotechnics and wild violent choreography, I don't find it terribly entrancing. It certainly never gets me in that F/O frame of mind.

The acting seems well-performed, with Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung portraying our leads, but I felt the characters lacked depth. The rather stilted and flat dialogue didn't help, and the plot didn't do a whole lot to move the film along; it's basically a conglomeration of action scenes that lack much of a coherent story to link them. (By the way, I recognize that the dialogue may suffer from the translation and might work better in its original language, but I can't really rate that; I have to go by what I have, which is awkward English.)

If I felt better stimulated by those action segments, then I might more easily forgive the film's other flaws. But try as I might, I just couldn't get into them. It all seemed like so much sturm und drang with little concrete purpose. Woo piles on so much over the top calamity that much of the effect gets lost along the way.

I can't say that I dislike Hard Boiled, because it is an effective film at times, but I nonetheless find it to be rather disappointing. My opinion may not match with the majority of Woo aficionados, but while I really wanted to enjoy the film, I rarely found it to offer a very involving experience.

The DVD:

Hard Boiled appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although parts of the film look pretty good, the DVD displays enough weaknesses to make it a less than satisfying viewing experience.

Sharpness generally seems pretty good, although the image veers toward fuzziness at times. No signs of any jagged edges or moire effects appeared, however. The print used for the transfer causes most of the problems with the image. Speckles are a frequent nuisance, and scratches and spots also appear regularly. Worst of all are the frame jumps that show up quite often. Usually these happen around the time of cuts, but that isn't a perfect rule; sometimes they affect images that are in the middle of a scene. In essence these make the picture momentarily look jittery, almost like it "skips." It's quite unusual - I don't recall seeing a similar effect elsewhere - and very distracting.

Colors seem a bit flat but generally are satisfactory; often they actually look quite solid and bold. Black levels are strong and appear very good, and shadow detail usually seems appropriately dense but not too heavy. That last area becomes more of a concern during the film's last act; I had more difficulty discerning shadow detail at that time. Overall, the image is not terrible except for occasional haziness and the almost ever-present print flaws; however, I really don't think such a recent movie should have that many problems, so I found the picture to be a disappointment.

Also a let down was the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack for Hard Boiled. The quality of the audio is decent but unspectacular. I watched the film with its original Cantonese track and found all aspects of the sound to seem acceptable and offers little distortion but generally appears flat and dull. The mix certainly lacks much life, and what's the deal with the mono sound from a 1992 movie? That's a very strange factor for this film, and one for which I had to penalize it. If this movie came out in 1972, it'd have a decent soundtrack, but it's woeful for a film that's less than a decade old.

Hard Boiled offers two soundtracks, actually. There's the Cantonese version, which I watched along with English subtitles, and also an English dub. I usually prefer the English editions just because I intensely dislike reading a movie; I think it largely defeats the purpose of the medium. However, the English dubbing for Hard Boiled is absolutely terrible. The voices sound distant and do not match the performers well at all. Otherwise, the quality of the track is actually good; unlike some other foreign films I've seen, there's no audible difference between the music and effects on either track. However, I just couldn't stomach the poorly-integrated English dialogue, so as much as I dislike subtitles, that was the only way to go for this film. (For the record, the original Cantonese dialogue also seems vaguely out of synch with the action and is poorly dubbed, but it's still not as bad as the English version.)

As a special edition from Criterion, we get a few supplemental features, but not as many as one normally expects from their offerings - especially considering that this title originally cost $125 on laserdisc! First up is a running audio commentary from Woo, producer Terence Chang, filmmaker Roger Avary, and critic Dave Kehr. I found this to be a weaker than usual effort from Criterion. In my book, they produce the best commentaries around as they neatly edit in useful and intriguing remarks from a number of participants. In this case, they could have used more active members of the HB team and relied less on Avary and Kehr. Woo and Chang provide some good information, but my ultimate reaction to the commentary is one of mild interest at best. It's worth a listen but not tremendously provocative.

Next we find a student film from Woo. This piece lasts 10 and a half minutes and is quite bizarre. It's a silent effort that contains some Chinese text during the movie; none of this is translated, so I have no idea if it adds or detracts from the production. It makes for a mildly intriguing experience, though it seems rather self-consciously artsy and makes little sense. The quality is quite bad, though I won't fault Criterion for that; I'm sure this source material has not exactly been well kept over the years.

A few minor supplements also appear. We get a plethora of trailers; the DVD includes previews for eleven of Woo's Hong Kong films. Although this feature usually seems just a gratuitous snack on most DVDs, it's a full meal here, mainly because most of the trailers run between three and four and a half minutes long; only a few clock in at less than that (with The Killer - also the only preview meant for an American audience - the briefest of the bunch at about 90 seconds).

The smorgasbord of trailers also is more useful than usual because they afford us a rare look at Woo's range of work. It ain't all that easy to find many of these films - especially on DVD - so this section acts as a mini-primer for his filmography. (I have to admit I took cheap pleasure from the poorly translated English subtitles, such as when The Young Dragons professes "nothing coarse about this film - but a new horizon - so satisfying - so understanding.")

Each trailer offers text comments about the film in a menu format. Most of these statements are from Woo, but some come from the critical community as well. They don't offer a tremendous amount of information but they definitely help. Here's the list of trailers included:

The Young Dragons; Hand of Death; Princess Chang Ping; Last Hurrah For Chivalry; From Riches to Rags; A Better Tomorrow; A Better Tomorrow 2; The Killer; Bullet In the Head; Once a Thief; Hard Boiled

Additional text comments appear on the DVD. One section called "Notes on Hard Boiled" offers exactly that; an essay that discusses the film. Another piece provides an article that generally discusses Hong Kong crime films. Both are by film writer David Chute and while neither is fantastic or tremendously informative, they added to my knowledge of the subjects so they're worth a look.

Finally, more text can be found inside the DVD's booklet. An interpretive essay from film educator Barbara Scharres discusses various aspects of the film. It's short but interesting.

At this point in time, Criterion's edition of Hard Boiled is out of print, but copies still may be found at some local stores. If that doesn't work, there's the online auction route, which will likely cost you money above the DVD's MSRP of $39.99. Is it worth it? In my opinion, no. I wasn't wild about Hard Boiled as a film, and though this package provides some decent extras, it's not one of Criterion's better efforts; I enjoyed the supplements but they did little to embellish the experience. Both picture and sound quality are very subpar for such a recent movie. I'd expect Hard Boiled will reappear on DVD sooner than later, not through this same edition, but in some form; I'd take that chance and wait for a reissue rather than pay the rather high price for this copy.

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