Hard Boiled, Or How I Met Tony Leung

I’ve been hyped for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings for many reasons: director Destin Daniel Cretton at the helm, Bill Pope as cinematographer (The Matrix trilogy & Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and former Jackie Chan pupils Andy Cheng and the late Brad Allan serving as the film’s fight choreographers. All this talent on board to help bring Marvel’s first Asian superhero to life, with a proper ensemble that includes OG martial arts ass-kicker Michelle Yeoh.

I was all in before the trailers, baby.

Respectfully, the film’s biggest flex for me came from the casting of Tony Leung as the villain. That’s a hell of a way to get me to root against the hero.

Leung isn’t too well known in the mainstream American West, but in international film festivals, independent circuits, and especially in university film courses (which is how I came to *ahem* marvel Leung’s prowess as an actor), he is among the more revered figures of the craft.

Even now, a week after Shang-Chi ’s release, Leung’s casting is still so SO mind-numbingly insane to me. Sure, Marvel has stacked the likes of Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Forest Whitaker, and many more who are often reduced to exposition-heavy supporting roles. (No shade here, get those Disney paychecks y’all!) But to nab an actor of Leung’s stature is worth a standing ovation alone. This isn’t just his MCU debut; it’s his long-awaited Hollywood debut.

Now, I know some of you are in full-blown action mode after Shang-Chi. I know I am. I won’t bore you with recommendations of Leung’s more pensive, arthouse performances. (Not yet anyway— though if you wanna inject that stuff into your veins right now, check out this excellent video essay.) I intend to help you mainline that action nirvana, which is why I can’t recommend Hard Boiled enough.

As kids, my cousins and I would recite lines from Point Break, Speed, Die Hard, Predator, Lethal Weapon, to name a few. (When our parents weren’t around, of course. We’re Filipinos; saying bad words got you the belt 😬) But whenever we were playing cops and robbers, we were physically quoting John Woo movies. Chow Yun-fat’s badass slide down the staircase in this sequence below, we tried to replicate REPEATEDLY.

Lemme put it this way, if I were teaching a course on action movie-making, then John Woo’s Hard Boiled would be the main curriculum—a two-part course with Jackie Chan’s Police Story. Watch these movies and you know instantly where Hollywood ripped its ideas from, and where modern blockbusters are still paying tribute. Someone like Michael Bay wouldn’t have a career if John Woo hadn’t come along and changed the game.

Hard Boiled stars Chow Yun-fat as Inspector Tequila (yes, that’s his name) a brash, quick-tempered cop with one hell of a dual-wielding wrath. His entire deal is plucked right out of the noir detectives of the 40s and 50s – the loose cannon cop who frequently butts heads with his hard-ass of a captain. The film noir references end there as John Woo takes the setup of a crime caper and uses it as an excuse to unleash a torrent of bullets and doves on deserving bad guys in increasingly over-the-top firefights.

In the middle of the explosions and feathers waltzes in Tony Leung. He plays the suave Alan, an undercover cop tasked with bringing down a notorious triad arms dealer. Tequila is shoot first, ask questions never; Alan is the quiet assassin who charms you while brandishing the silencer under the table. He’s the slick and smooth counterpart to Tequila’s loud, boisterous action hero. Dressed in immaculate suits and driving with the top down, Leung is slyly making his bid for James Bond here.

In many ways, Hard Boiled is Alan’s movie. Tequila is the way in, the force of nature driving the plot. Alan is the one who has to grapple with the film’s serious moral dilemmas. One takes the reins of the spectacle-driven portions of the movie, the other has command over the weightier, emotional scenes.

Alan is in deeper than he realizes. He’s earned the respect of crime boss Uncle Hoi to the point that he functions like a second-in-command. But Alan’s sleek reputation catches the attention of rival triad leader Johnny Wong, who plots to usurp Uncle Hoi’s supply chain WITH Alan’s help as a fatal double cross. (Tequila may be take-no-prisoners when it comes to the bad guys, but Johnny Wong spares no innocents.) This is where Tony Leung’s talent is on display. We watch Alan grapple with this choice using little to no words.

He knows what Johnny Wong is asking him to do, and he knows what Uncle Hoi is saying when he eventually submits to the checkmate. If anyone were to kill Uncle Hoi, he’d rather it be Alan, and this makes the choice that much harder for him. He can’t pretend to be a ruthless double-crosser because Uncle Hoi knew this was coming sooner or later. Alan, then, cannot hide how sympathetic he is in the moment. He commits by pulling the trigger, but something else is going on there too. Not ambition as a cop with bragging rights in taking down a big-time criminal. There, between the eyebrows and nose— the pocket of tears betraying a soul: resignation.

Leung conveys all of this via transmission through the eyes. He doesn’t ruminate out loud like Bruce Willis has frequently done as John McClane, nor does he throw the kind of arms-out macho tantrums of Sylvester Stallone. Heck, Leung’s own fellow co-stars in Hard Boiled give in to those very tantrums, whereas he barely raises his voice to speak, to be heard.

He may be starring in an action movie, but he plays it as if this were any other film.

Is Alan a dutiful cop going for the next big shark, or is he better at being a triad? What’s so compelling about the question is seeing Alan wrestle with his identity *without ever needing to verbalize the struggle. (It’s no wonder Leung would go on to star in Infernal Affairs, a movie that Martin Scorsese took as inspiration for The Departed.) This moral crisis is all interiorized for the camera to see with the same level of detail that it does with exploding barrels.

Alan’s crisis is punctuated in a wordless moment in the ensuing warehouse shootout. Tequila has Alan dead to rights, and Alan looks on like he knows it’s his time, like he deserves this.

But by some divine intervention, Tequila’s revolver jams. Alan appears relieved, but also disappointed in having to fight another day.

Alan and Inspector Tequila eventually align by mutual circumstances. Alan wants out. Tequila wants to take down Johnny Wong. They begrudgingly help each other and become far more efficient as a pair. Alan has the access, and Tequila has the gung-ho attitude to bring down the whole operation.

The shootouts in Hard Boiled pile on to the point that the last 30 minutes of the movie is one giant prolonged action sequence. Once we get to the hospital, we don’t leave until the very end. But Leung never loses Alan’s suaveness and charisma amidst the ducking and rolling and shooting. Tequila goes Arnold Schwarzenegger with a bomb-ass shotgun, while Alan methodically lays waste to his targets.

But there’s a pivotal moment in the shootout (one long continuous take btw, if you hadn’t noticed) where Alan accidentally shoots a fellow officer, and it once again brings up Alan’s cop/criminal crisis. He’s wearing the police uniform at this stage in the movie and he’s lost sight of which hat he’s wearing.

Even in a bravura long-take action scene, Leung managers to deliver a heartbreaking performance amidst the spectacle.

Afterwards, Alan has fully accepted that he’s not worth redeeming as showcased by a hard, violent life that catapulted him to the top of the triad’s ranks. Suicide as the completion to a quiet tragic-hero arc; only Leung’s tortured eyes can sell that.

Which is why it’ll be up to Tequila to prove otherwise in the final minutes.

I dare not give anything else away about the movie. If you haven’t seen it, you ought to change that. (Fair warning: the kill count is NOT for the faint of heart.) Action junkies, behold. And all you Tony Leung stans both new and veteran, drink it in. Hard Boiled isn’t just a tonic for our obsessions of the moment, it’s the sensational over-the-top action movie that’s still the reigning champion of the genre nearly 30 years later.


2 thoughts on “Hard Boiled, Or How I Met Tony Leung

  1. Yes, great recommendation! There’s nothing quite like Hong Kong action back then. It’s so cool to see everyone discussing their favourite Tony Leung movies after Shang-chi too. He really is one of the best actors out there!

    1. Favorite part about all the Shang-Chi discussions! Tony Leung being discovered or rediscovered by many, it’s gratifying to see. Naturally, it became an excuse for me to revisit Hard Boiled 😏

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