Anatomy of a Scene: ‘Hard Boiled’ and the one-take hospital shootout

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Boredom can often inspire the most feverish bouts of creativity, and when John Woo caught wind of his grew growing weary during the mammoth 123-day shoot of Hard Boiled, he decided to freshen things up by orchestrating almost three unbroken minutes of bullet-riddled carnage.

The filmmaker’s final feature in his native Hong Kong before trying his hand at cracking Hollywood also doubled as his final collaboration with star Chow Yun-fat, and it’s been hugely beneficial to the movie’s legacy as a pivotal moment in their shared reinvention of action cinema that Hard Boiled is comfortably one of the genre’s greatest-ever efforts.

Starting as he means to go on, Woo sets the stage spectacularly with the opening teahouse shootout, dropping bodies and blood squibs with reckless abandon, and by the time the credits roll, the film has racked up a kill count north of 300. That’s merely the table-setter, though, with the midpoint warehouse sequence upping the ante further before the grandstanding extended finale in a hospital conspires to raise the bar even further.

Almost the entire third act of Hard Boiled unfolds in a single location, and with 40 days of the production schedule dedicated to the hospital scenes, it’s easy to see why the crew was getting restless. There’s a lot going on, leaving Woo to conjure up a one-take masterclass in blocking, staging, timing, and tidying to inject some fresh energy into proceedings.

Plenty of movies have deployed lengthy takes to showcase their dazzling virtuosity, but none of them have done so – at least in the pre-CGI era, anyway – while causing quite as much chaos. Yun-fat’s Inspector Tequila and Tony Leung’s Alan are quite literally fighting for their lives, with Woo’s camera weaving around them as they navigate the treacherous corridors and blow away anybody who gets in their way.

The intrepid pair deal with more than two dozen assailants, littering the corridors with shattered glass, bursts of claret, fractured debris, fire, explosions, and bullet casings galore. It would be impressive enough on its own, but it’s the brief respite when Tequila and Alan pause to catch their breath that highlights Woo’s signature blend of ambition and ingenuity.

For the audience, the characters are simply using an elevator to move from one floor to the other, but on the other side of those doors, Woo’s crew have roughly 30 seconds to clear up and reset the entire set while also making it look like a completely different floor of the hospital before Yun-fat and Leung emerge to continue their gun-toting rampage.

Not only that, but the production team had to reset and re-rig all of the charges and squibs needed to execute the rest of the scene in minimal time, all while the director follows the two protagonists without cutting away. It must have been a complete nightmare for those working behind the scenes on Hard Boiled to get it done so quickly, but it’s so seamless that, for all intents and purposes, it’s impossible to notice the dynamic duo ended up cutting a swathe through the exact same set twice over.

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