The Warehouse Raid In Hard Boiled Is The Best Action Scene Ever

(Welcome to Best Action Scene Ever, a column dedicated to breaking down the best, most effective action sequences throughout the genre. In this edition, John Woo blows minds — literally — with the 1992 classic "Hard Boiled.")

Long before a character named John Wick burst onto the scene, changing the entire landscape of action for years to come, a different John W. did very much the same, with even greater challenges to conquer. Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo might be most well-known in the West for his contributions to Hollywood, including the likes of "The Killer," "Face/Off," and "Mission Impossible: II." But true students of the genre know that his work in Hong Kong cinema influenced much of American action filmmaking for decades to come.

1992's "Hard Boiled" marked a huge turning point in Woo's career, representing the last Hong Kong film he made (the movie is mostly spoken in Cantonese) before going on to pursue work in Hollywood. The premise is as simple as it gets: a hard-boiled detective on the hunt for illegal weapon trafficking becomes embroiled in an all-out gang war, which (unbeknownst to him) is being infiltrated by an undercover cop inserted deep within the ranks of the Triad crime syndicate. "Hard Boiled" united action star Chow Yun-Fat (who also worked with Woo on "A Better Tomorrow" years prior) with Tony Leung, putting them on opposite sides of the same war and wowing audiences with a nonstop onslaught of stunts, as the two enemies crept closer to becoming a legendary buddy cop pairing.

That moment happens to come during one of the most extravagant set pieces in the entire film: a warehouse raid that rapidly turns into a frenzied and jaw-dropping shootout.

The scene

You know the drill. Chow Yun-Fat's Inspector "Tequila" Yuen — a hot-headed cop that plays by his own rules — jumps headfirst into dangerous situations and blows away gangbangers despite hordes of innocents caught in the crossfire. While Tequila is busy aggravating his superior (Philip Chan), Tony Leung's Alan is forced to do the dirty work of a trusted hitman, killing whichever targets threaten their enterprise in order to ensure the trust of mob boss "Uncle" Hoi (Kwan Hoi-san) and the ambitious, ladder-climbing Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong) — a Triad mainstay with a vicious mean streak. The two eventually land on each other's radars in a big way, culminating in a violent and surprisingly complex warehouse raid roughly a quarter of the way through the movie.

Utterly unsuspecting of Alan's allegiances, Uncle Hoi and his men walk into a trap when Johnny Wong secretly recruits Alan in a brazen power play. What follows is an explosive-laden and stunt-heavy sequence that made audiences sit up and wonder how exactly the creative team ever managed to pull it off. Led by gunmen on motorcycles, the warehouse target is transformed almost instantaneously from a wide-open space hosting Uncle Hoi's weapons cache to a claustrophobic death trap. Through it all, Woo keeps the action interesting and unexpected. Stuntmen fall off the roofs of cars, get lit on fire, and are even run over by motorcycles, all while Woo's signature camerawork captures the bloody, physics-defying carnage of relentless shootouts.

Surprisingly, Leung himself doesn't get much to do besides stand around and look cool while smoking a cigarette ... but that soon changes when he's compelled to murder his old boss in cold blood, kicking off the even more extravagant second half of this iconic shootout. 

Why it works

I can sum up exactly why this sequence works so well in a single, unsatisfying sentence: John Woo and his stunt team simply go for it. Watching the extended warehouse raid unfold breezily calls to mind several of its more modern successors that clearly took a page from the Woo playbook, like "The Matrix" or the "John Wick" movies. If storytelling is about building on the foundation laid down by countless others, then action is an ever-evolving dance channeling original concepts and a remix of classics to that point, like Sam Peckinpah. What we're left with is a wholly unique flavor of action that Woo has always excelled in, sending stuntmen and vehicles alike flying amid explosions and gunfire that triggers some of our most deep-seated instincts to watch things blow up. It's honestly as simple as that.

But what really sends this sequence to the next level is the fact that it plays out like its own mini-movie amid the much more sweeping focus of "Hard Boiled." Finally, the raid appears to be winding down, with an obviously conflicted Alan cornering Uncle Hoi and his men. Throughout an almost excruciating build-up to having to make this fateful choice, Leung perfectly captures the emotional turmoil rippling inside Alan. Goaded on by Johnny Wong and with Tequila silently observing off to the side, Alan's trap is sprung and he can no longer put off the inevitable, executing Hoi and wiping out his henchmen in a shocking burst of self-loathing gunfire.

The tense standoff, which takes up a whopping seven minutes of this nearly 18-minute-long sequence, gives us just the right amount of time to catch our breath before slamming us in the face once again with even more mayhem to come.

The key moment

If you thought this sequence was chaotic enough as it was, try throwing the one-man wrecking crew known as Tequila into the mix. Having had enough of crouching in the shadows, Chow Yun-Fat finally enters the fray and completely turns this sequence on its head. Chucking flash-bangs into the mix and rappelling down from the warehouse roof, the appearance of Tequila somehow ups the ante even more and adds all the sparks, bullets, and flames that we never knew we needed. Let's put it this way: For anyone who may have become jaded by stale and formless action in most modern blockbusters, watching Tequila shotgun a motorcyclist out of mid-air and subsequently burst into flames in a gloriously slow-mo shot might just be the antidote you need.

Depicted as the stereotypical cop and robber to this point, the two finally end up face-to-face and the results are nothing short of incredible. Narrowly avoiding each others' hail of bullets, the action is steadily funneled into grittier, close-quarter combat as the stakes rise ever higher. The intrusion of the persistent assassin Mad Dog (Philip Kwok) adds an extra layer of complications, but the action finally builds to the confrontation between our two main characters.

Here, we get a much-welcome dose of emotion anchoring this story, which could've easily gone off the rails in its pursuit of the loudest, most visceral bang for its buck. Tequila runs out of bullets just as he's about to deliver the killing blow, but Alan almost smirks as he refuses to fire at point-blank range and simply walks off. In this one moment, their entire dynamic changes and vaults "Hard Boiled" into a much more fulfilling yarn about enemies coming together to join forces and combine their firepower for even greater thrills.