The film was released in Hong Kong in 1992 to generally positive audience reception, but it was not as commercially successful as Woo's previous action films, such as A Better Tomorrow and The Killer. Reception from western critics was much more positive; many critics and film scholars have come to proclaim its action scenes as among the best ever filmed. In 2007, a video game sequel titled Stranglehold was released, which is in the process of being made into a film.
In a tea house in Hong Kong, Officer "Tequila" Yuen (Chow Yun-fat) and his partner Benny (Bowie Lam), attempt to arrest a group of gun smugglers while they are making a deal. After an ambush from another gang member, a fierce gun battle breaks out. The gangsters are defeated but several police officers are badly wounded and Benny is killed. Angered by the death of his partner, Tequila decides to kill the gangster who ambushed them rather than arrest him. This angers his boss, Officer Superintendent Pang (Philip Chan), who wanted the gangster alive to testify. Tequila is subsequently ordered off the case for his misdemeanor.
Elsewhere, a high-ranking assassin, Alan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), works for Triad boss "Uncle" Hoi (Kwan Hoi-Shan). Alan murders a fellow member of Hoi's gang, who had been working for Johnny Wong's (Anthony Wong) rival syndicate. Wong is impressed by Alan's skill and attempts to recruit him. Alan reluctantly turns against Hoi when Wong conducts a raid on Hoi's arsenal at a warehouse. At the warehouse, Wong's men kill Hoi's workers and destroy his stock. When Hoi arrives, Wong demands Alan kill Hoi, which he does, along with the rest of Hoi's men. Just then, smoke grenades explode and Tequila attacks. Alan covers Wong's escape as Tequila battles and kills most of the gangsters. In the end, Tequila finds himself confronting Alan face to face in the smoke, with guns to each other's heads. Tequila tries to shoot Alan, but finds he is out of ammo. Although he has a chance to kill Tequila, Alan slowly lowers his gun and walks away.
At the police station, Pang confirms that Alan is actually an undercover cop. Tequila tracks Alan down to his sailboat to try to make sense of the situation, but the two are ambushed by the remnants of Hoi's gang. Tequila and Alan manage to kill their attackers just before Wong arrives, which allows Alan to keep his cover. Wong realizes that one of his gangsters named Foxy (Tung Wei), is an informant for the police. Foxy is beaten at the docks by Wong's henchman Mad Dog (Philip Kwok) in front of Alan and Wong. Alan then shoots Foxy in the chest, although he secretly placed a cigarette lighter in Foxy's breast pocket earlier to prevent the shot from being fatal. Foxy finds Tequila at a jazz bar and informs him that Wong's armory is in the nearby Maple Group Hospital. As Tequila takes Foxy to the hospital, Wong finds out that Foxy is alive and sends Alan to kill Foxy, as well as sending Mad Dog separately to cover Alan. At the hospital, Alan confronts Tequila, demanding to know the whereabouts of Wong's arsenal. While Alan and Tequila are distracted, Foxy is killed by Mad Dog.
Alan and Tequila discover a hidden passage in the hospital leading to Wong's arsenal. They are confronted by Mad Dog, who engages them. Wong arrives at the hospital and has all the patients, police officers and staff taken hostage. After fighting their way to the main lobby, Alan and Tequila liberate the kidnapped patients and police officers. Pang evacuates the lobby while police detective Teresa Chang (Teresa Mo) goes to the maternity ward to organize evacuating the babies. Alan and Tequila continue fighting gangsters until they find Mad Dog. While Tequila goes to assist Chang with the babies, Alan and Mad Dog find themselves in a standoff with a group of patients caught in the middle. They slowly put their guns down and offer the patients safe passage, until Wong appears and shoots them all. An enraged Mad Dog shoots Wong's gun out of his hand. Wong shoots and kills Mad Dog while Alan escapes.
Tequila finds the last baby in the maternity unit, and carries it to safety while fighting off the last of the gangsters. Alan and Tequila meet up again and are confronted by Wong, who has set bombs to blow up the building. Alan pursues Wong as Tequila escapes the hospital with the last baby, the hospital exploding around him. Outside, Wong suddenly appears holding Alan at gunpoint. After watching Wong humiliate Tequila, Alan grabs Wong's pistol. In a struggle, Alan shoots himself through the stomach giving Tequila enough time to shoot Wong dead. Later at the police station, Pang and Tequila burn Alan's police file. Alan then sails away from Hong Kong in his boat.Chow Yun-fat as Inspector "Tequila" Yuen: A clarinet-playing police officer whose partner is killed in a restaurant gunfight with a small army of gangsters. Chow had previously worked with director John Woo on several of his films, including A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Once a Thief.
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as Alan: An undercover cop posing as a high-ranking Triad assassin. He makes an origami crane every time he kills someone, a trait which was influenced by Woo's daughter when he saw her making them. Tony's character is shown as living alone and detached from others. Woo stated that this was influenced by Alain Delon's character in the French crime film Le Samouraï. Leung had previously worked with Woo on his film Bullet in the Head.
Teresa Mo as Teresa Chang: A fellow police officer who is the girlfriend of Inspector "Tequila" Yuen. Chang helps decode the secret code songs that are sent to the police office by Alan.
Philip Chan as Supt. Pang: Prior to the film, Philip Chan was a police officer for about fifteen years. Philip Chan felt that certain scenes in the film were very familiar as they were similar to things had to do with real police work.
Philip Kwok as Mad Dog: A skilled gunfighter working for Johnny Wong.
Anthony Wong as Johnny Wong: Wong is the head of a Triad who encourages Alan to kill Uncle Hoi. Wong's triad has a large number of guns hidden in the basement of a hospital.
Bowie Lam as Benny: An undercover officer who is killed in the tea house shoot-out.
Anjo Leung as Benny's son.
Bobby Au-Yeung as Lionheart: An assistant to Inspector "Tequila" Yuen.
Kwan Hoi-Shan as Mr. Hoi: A triad boss who is the head of the gang Alan is investigating. Mr. Hoi is killed in a warehouse shoot-out.
Tung Wei as Foxy: An undercover cop beaten up by Mad Dog. Foxy is spared by Alan, and lives to deliver information to Tequila from Alan. Foxy is later killed by Mad Dog at the hospital in which the final shoot-out takes place.
John Woo as a Bartender: A bartender at the Jazz club who gives advice to Inspector "Tequila" Yuen.
The film was originally developed in 1990. After creating films which focused on the lives of gangsters, director John Woo wanted to make a film that glorified the police instead. Woo admired Clint Eastwood's and Steve McQueen's characters from their films Dirty Harry and Bullitt respectively, and wanted to make his own Hong Kong-style Dirty Harry police detective film. While creating this character, Woo was inspired by a police officer who was a strong-willed and tough member of the police force, as well as being an avid drummer. This led to Woo having Tequila's character be a musician as well as a cop.
Before production started, Woo told his actors that he was not going to make the film as stylish as his previous films, but to have it be more of an "edgy thriller". The role of Teresa Chang was originally made for actress Michelle Yeoh who had a long relationship with producer Terence Chang. After casting Teresa Mo, the character of Teresa Chang was greatly re-written. The film's initial story was about Tony Leung's character being a psychopath who would poison baby food. When Terence Chang was making connections to have Woo make films in the United States, Chang found people uninterested and disgusted with the theme of babies being poisoned. This halted production for a month to develop a new story. Screenwriter Barry Wong was brought in to write a new story about Tony Leung's character being an undercover police officer. After writing the first part of the script, Wong went on a vacation outside Hong Kong, where he died leaving the script unfinished.
Hard Boiled took 123 days to shoot. Although Woo told his cast that the film would be more gritty and not as stylish as his previous films, Hard Boiled became more stylish as the filming began. The tea house sequence in the film was shot before the script was written. The crew found that the tea house was going to be torn down and decided to film a scene there. Woo saw the staircase in the tea house, and thought about a scene where a character would come shooting down gun smugglers while sliding down the banister. The tea house sequence was shot in around a week's time and was choreographed by Woo and Philip Kwok. It was shot with interruptions from many local triads in the area asking for protection money, and residents complaining about the noise.
The script of the film went through several changes during filming. Due to the length of the film, scenes from a side-story involving the relationship between the character Tequila and Teresa Chang were cut. Another cut scene included Tequila playing clarinet over Benny's grave. With these cuts, Chow Yun-Fat felt his character was not very deep in comparison to Leung's character of Alan. To develop his character more, Chow asked John Woo to insert a mentor character in the film, which Woo himself would play. Chow felt that having Woo in this role would make Woo not cut out these scenes. Philip Kwok's role of Mad Dog was not in the script and was created on the set. Kwok first worked with Woo on his film Once a Thief and was asked to return to work on Hard Boiled. After reading the script, Woo felt that the character of Johnny Wong was not a strong enough physical threat. After seeing Kwok do several of the stunts while filming, Woo created the character of Mad Dog for him.
The scenes shot at the Hospital maternity ward and the warehouse were shot at a new studio called "The Coca-Cola Factory" which was formerly a Coke bottling plant. The hospital scenes took 40 days to shoot. The hospital segment's location was chosen since they wanted to have an atypical location where gangs would hide their weapons. While filming in the hospital, the windows were covered with blast shields to give the appearance of night time, which allowed the crew to film at any time during the day. Members of the cast and crew stayed in the hospital for days often losing track of the time of day. After long hours of filming in the hospital, the crew became exhausted. This led to having the last scene be one long five-minute scene of action to shorten the time needed to film. To complete this, during the scene when two characters go into an elevator to talk for twenty seconds, the crew changes the scene entirely and sets up the explosions for the scene to continue seamlessly. An accident occurred while filming the hospital sequence. Real glass was used and pieces of it flew toward Tony Leung and got into his eyes. Leung was sent to the hospital and after a week's rest, he returned to the set. Woo changed the ending of Hard Boiled after many members of the crew of the film felt that Leung's character should survive at the film's end.
Woo is a fan of jazz music and wanted this style for the soundtrack of Hard Boiled. Woo had also previously wanted a singer to perform a jazz song and have Chow Yun Fat's character play saxophone in his previous film The Killer. The producer for The Killer, Tsui Hark, rejected this idea for The Killer, feeling that Hong Kong audiences didn't enjoy and understand jazz music. The score heard in Hard Boiled was created by jazz musician Michael Gibbs. During promotional screenings, the score for the film was different and was described as "very haunting music" by film scholar Bey Logan. This score could not be used as the production crew could not get the rights to the music. Other songs featured in the film, include "Hello" by Lionel Richie and the traditional song "Mona Lisa". Woo chose these songs specifically for their lyrics to suggest that Tony was a sort of pen pal to Teresa. All the characters in Hard Boiled had their voices dubbed by their own actors in order to save money. Woo stated this was convenient as he did not have to worry about setting up boom mics and other sound elements.
Hard Boiled's was released on 16 April 1992 in Hong Kong. The film grossed HK$19,711,048 which was not as strong of a box office reception as Woo's previous action films A Better Tomorrow or The Killer. On the film's initial release in Hong Kong it debuted at number 3 in the box office where it was beaten by Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China 2 and the Stephen Chow film Fight Back to School II.
The North American premiere of Hard Boiled was in September 1992 at the Toronto International Film Festival. At the premiere the audience response was very positive with people stomping their feet and yelling at the screen. This reception surprised producer Terence Chang who did not expect such a positive reaction. Hard Boiled received wide release in the United Kingdom on 8 October 1993.
A laserdisc edition of Hard Boiled was released by The Criterion Collection in December 1995. A Region Free DVD of Hard Boiled was released by The Criterion Collection on 10 July 1998. A second Region 1 DVD of the film was released by Fox Lorber. Fox Lorber released the film as a stand-alone release and as a double feature with The Killer on 3 October 2000. Originally, when Miramax bought the rights to Hard Boiled, The Killer, and Bullet to the Head, they intended to release it in a cut version on video, it was until Woo prevented them from releasing it except Woo prefers his cut of his films to be released. The most recent Region 1 release of Hard Boiled was from Dragon Dynasty, who released a two disc DVD of the film on 24 July 2007. A Blu-Ray version of the film was included as part of the Stranglehold Limited Edition for the PlayStation 3, and was later released as a standalone title by Dragon Dynasty.
Hard Boiled was received well by English-language critics on its original release. The film ranking website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 94% of critics had given the film positive reviews, based upon a sample of 31. Initial reception was positive. Vincent Canby of The New York Times found it difficult to follow both the action scenes and the subtitles at the same time, but stated that "Mr. Woo does, in fact, seem to be a very brisk, talented director with a gift for the flashy effect and the bizarre confrontation." A review in the Los Angeles Times stated that "With Hard Boiled, John Woo shows himself to be the best director of contemporary action films anywhere." The Philadelphia Inquirer spoke positively about the action scenes, noting the "epic shootouts that bookend Hard-Boiled, John Woo's blood-soaked Hong Kong gangster extravaganza, are wondrously staged, brilliantly photographed tableaux." The Boston Herald proclaimed the film as "arguably Woo's masterpiece, it is an action film to end all action films, an experience so deliriously cinematic it makes "True Romance," a film that clearly aspires to it, look like a cheap copy" A review in Newsday gave the film three and a half stars, stating that "Mayhem has never looked better than in John Woo's latest high-caliber cops-and-robbers thriller, even if the plot is a bit slippery" and that John Woo "has blasted the action genre onto a whole new level. His shootouts are a ballet; his firebombings are poetry. And while he lets the body count get away from him, he constantly fascinates, through a combination of chaos and an excruciating control over what we're allowed to see."
After the film's initial release, critical reception continues to be positive. Film scholar Andy Klein wrote that the film is "almost a distillation of [Woo's] post-1986 work. Even if the plot is full of holes, and the emotional tug isn't quite as strong as in The Killer, the action sequences (nearly the whole movie) are among the greatest ever filmed". Mark Salisbury of Empire Magazine gave the film four stars out of five, calling it "Infinitely more exciting than a dozen Die Hards, action cinema doesn't come any better than this." Salisbury compared Hard Boiled to Woo's American films, stating that his Hong Kong films are "not as slick as his later films, [Hard Boiled is] more inventive and stylised and [has] great early performances from Fat and Leung". Empire placed the film at number 70 in their list of "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010. Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine gave the film the highest rating of four stars, proclaiming it to be one of Woo's best films. The British film magazine Empire ranked the character of Tequila as 33rd in their "The 100 Greatest Movie Characters" poll.
At the 12th Hong Kong Film Awards, David Wu and John Woo won the award for "Best Film Editing". Tony Leung was nominated for "Best Supporting Male Actor", but lost the award to Liu Kai-Chi in Cageman.
In 2007, Midway Games released the game Stranglehold. The game's story and storyboards were made in collaboration with John Woo. The game features the character Tequila from Hard Boiled, who is travelling the globe in search of his kidnapped daughter. John Woo's production company Lion Rock Entertainment is developing a film version of the game which will be written by Jeremy Passmore and Andre Fabrizio.