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How director John Woo changed Hollywood’s history of violence

Yun-Fat Chow in John Woo’s Hard Boiled.

In this year's The Fate of the Furious, the eighth instalment in a saga that will likely never ever end, a standout sequence finds Jason Statham's antihero dispatching various bad guys – via both standard firearm and the registered lethal weapon that is Statham's body – all while carrying a tiny infant nestled in a car seat. So long as you don't think about the physics of the scene, and this is a franchise that is physics' worst enemy, it's a thrilling moment that marries the two things Hollywood blockbusters love most: over-the-top action and cutesy winks at the audience.

And like most high-water marks of modern action cinema, John Woo did it better, and he did it first.

In 1992's Hard Boiled, easily Woo's best film and just as easily the best action film of the nineties, Woo perfected a cinematic alchemy he had been tinkering with for the better part of a decade in Hong Kong with A Better Tomorrow and The Killer: action as opera, bombast as poetry.

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So yes, at one point in Hard Boiled, Woo's hero, police Inspector (Tequila) Yuen (played by Chow Yun-Fat), shoots his way out of a deadly situation while cradling a newborn babe in his arms. But unlike Statham's moment of glory in Fate, which ends in a neutered fashion (the bad guys are dead, the baby is safe, a quip is proffered, let's cut to the next spectacle), Woo pushes the joke. Tequila not only has to keep disposing of an endless parade of nameless thugs while carrying the baby boy, he must also escape a burning building while doing so. And contend with a live and loose electrical wire. And then his pants catch fire. And that little bundle of joy he's been sheltering? Well, the young one pees all over his protector and puts that darn blaze out.

It is a moment of carefully calculated insanity that crystallizes Woo's over-the-edge sensibilities, a quality that has both beguiled Hollywood and spawned countless imitators, including Woo himself, via later-period paycheque jobs (notably, Paycheck).

Back in 1992, though, Hard Boiled was as fresh as it was urgent, a feeling TIFF Cinematheque and Toronto curator and former Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes will hope to recapture this Saturday night with a special 25th anniversary screening of the masterpiece. Unspooling in a 35mm print, the event offers contemporary audiences not only the chance to witness Woo's career high, but the very antecedent of tent-pole filmmaking.

The movie announces its audacity from the start, long before any urina ex machina moment. Only a few minutes into the film, Woo has Chow (like his frequent director, another Hong Kong legend who never got his fair shake with Western audiences) giving chase to two hoods. Bullets tear up a teahouse, bystanders go down as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and it's general chaos. Chow's expert cop, meanwhile, nonchalantly dangles a toothpick between his teeth, glides down a bannister, targets his prey and ensures they're dead before he slides off the staircase.

It is a moment of subzero cool, a perfect blend of aesthetic and character. And when Western audiences finally got around to witnessing it – including the lucky few at its North American premiere at TIFF in 1992, or what was then known as the Festival of Festivals – it would change the action game forever.

It doesn't take much detective work to figure out Hard Boiled's influence. Woo's unbroken three-minute-and-20-second-long tracking shot of a shootout is echoed in everything from Children of Men to True Detective. His fetishistic embrace of ultralush violence – not only its execution, but its bloody consequences on the human body – is written into the DNA of any modern shootout sequence. Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, the Wachowski siblings, Michael Bay and, of course, Fate of the Furious director F. Gary Gray – all pray at the altar of Woo.

It is unfair, though, to label all of his acoyltes as imitators. Most have used the director's on-camera language to form a new cinematic spectacle uniquely their own (okay, maybe not Gray). Plus, after experiencing Hard Boiled, how could anyone realistically expect to make another action movie without its influence bleeding into their own vision?

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Woo himself wasn't immune to such a temptation. Hard Boiled marked the director's swan song to Hong Kong genre cinema, and he would spend the next 15 years stateside, chasing that high. He came exceptionally close with 1997's John Travolta-Nic Cage battle royale Face/Off, which I guarantee is more bananas than you remember, and launched the unlikely era where being an action star was contingent on how much scenery you could shove into your gaping maw. (It also featured a Hard Boiled-esque kid-in-peril shootout that ruined, or perhaps enhanced, the listening experience of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.)

Woo would slide further into self-imitation, even self-parody, with Mission: Impossible II, Windtalkers and the aforementioned Paycheck before heading back to China to reinvent his career with historical epics (Red Cliff, The Crossing). All the while, though, his brand of onscreen violence continued to metastasize in Hollywood, to the point that Hard Boiled's extreme bloodletting looks like a PG lark that would have a hard time getting a green light today.

All bets are off as to whether we will ever see another great John Woo action film from the actual John Woo himself – his forthcoming thriller, Manhunt, for instance, looks promising – but a Hard Boiled refresher is not an opportunity to pass up lightly. Amidst all its blunt chaos, and baby-urination antics, lies the history of Hollywood violence. Jason Statham might even learn a thing or two.

Hard Boiled screens July 29 at 11 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (tiff.net) with an introduction by Colin Geddes.

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About the Author

Barry Hertz is the deputy arts editor and film editor for The Globe and Mail. He previously served as the Executive Producer of Features for the National Post, and was a manager and writer at Maclean’s before that. His arts and culture writing has also been featured in several publications, including Reader’s Digest and NOW Magazine. More

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