John Woo’s “Hard Boiled” (‘92) is a certain type of gritty, relentless, over-the-top late 80s / early 90s action spectacular that has since been supplanted almost entirely by dreary, never-ending comic book franchises and ponderous CGI debacles. Chow Yun-fat stars as “Tequila” Yuen, a wise-cracking, hard-drinking, jazz-clarinet-shredding[!?] cop who plays by his own rules; alongside Tony Leung as Alan, an undercover cop who’s gotten in too deep for his own good.
Over the course of its first hour, we are treated to a masterclass in Hong Kong action choreography, with tremendous shootouts in tea parlors, warehouses, and docks; punctuated by necessary genre staples like: heated arguments with The Chief, slow-motion funerals at dusk, late night barroom philosophy, and trouble with the ladyfriend.
However, the entire second half of the film takes place completely within the confines of a hospital — the basement of which is being used as a secret weapons cache by a violent, unhinged Triad group. This spectacular half hour is spent rotating between three interwoven action sequences, where (1) the SWAT team squares off against the heavily armed Triad forces; (2) Alan and Tequila battle the Triad’s main enforcer (Mad Dog); and (3) all the while innocent patients of the hospital are being alternately evacuated, gunned down, and blown to smithereens in the overwhelming pyrotechnics.
Threaded through all of this is one of the strangest (yet absolutely captivating) plots I have seen in quite a while: Tequila’s on-again-off-again lover Teresa [played by Teresa Mo] is tasked with coordinating the evacuation of DOZENS of Babies from the hospital’s 2nd floor maternity ward.
The Baby evac (like all the intertwined plots in the last act) becomes increasingly harrowing, eventually involving straight-up firefights and explosions in the nursery — with Tequila gunning down Triad members, outrunning explosions, and leaping from a second-story window… all while holding (and wise-cracking to) a Baby.
This, dear reader, is the starting point of our project.
First introduced around 1:18 in a short, dreamy montage, The Babies seem to enter the film from out of nowhere. While not exactly diagetically out-of-place (as we are in a hospital), this scene is a marked tonal contrast from the violent material which precedes it, and is hard to see as anything but a really weird Checkov’s Gun.
Even more bizarrely, The Babies’ true genesis lies in an earlier incarnation of the script — which revolved around a psychopath who poisons baby food. This plot was (probably rightly) considered “unacceptable” for international audiences, and so this version script was abandoned.¹
However, the idea of including babies in the movie stuck around… and so here we are: with Teresa seemingly hypnotized as The Babies are lovingly fed, bathed, and swaddled by their attendant nurses.
Shaken from her reverie by Tequila and Alan, Teresa is scuttled off into an elevator, where she provides them with some critical intel on the hospital’s suspicious basement; after which she does some other non-Baby stuff.
We don’t hook up with The Babies again until 1:33, by which point the shit is mere moments from hitting the fan; and the police begin attempting to evacuate the hospital under the guise of a fire drill.
During the chaos, Teresa suddenly remembers… The Babies!
This is where The Babies’ subplot gets started in earnest. In the initial evacuation scramble, we see at least two babies safely leave the nursery before the Triad Goons lock the place down and take the remaining patients hostage.
Some Goons storm the nursery, and force the nurses to leave at gunpoint, but not before Teresa slaps one of them across the face, and (like a boss) tell him to shut up because he’s scaring The Babies. We are left with a slow panning shot of the now-abandoned Babies to emphasize just how goddamn many of them there are, and an ominous bowed cymbal cue to emphasize the danger they now face.
The action rolls along at a steady clip, with the Triad vs SWAT clash escalating into bazooka-and-C4 territory; and Tequila and Alan wisecracking in the basement before blowing their way out through the morgue (and a few dozen Triad Goons).
Around 1:44 the SWAT team enters the hospital, blowing away Goon after Goon. Simultaneously, Tequila and Teresa (now reunited) make their way back to the Nursery.
They plug The Babies’ ears with cotton to protect their hearing. As a musician who has lost a few dB above 12kHz over the years to drums and Marshals, I greatly appreciated this detail.
The SWAT team reaches the nursery, and Tequila orders them to “Assist madam. Get these babies out.” In short order, they realize the exit from the maternity ward is blocked by a raging fire, and Teresa & co. are forced to improvise.
They tie scraps of the curtains around the bassinets to form makeshift handles, and a SWAT member rappels down the front of the Hospital with The First Baby; braving machine gun fire from the Triad Goons, and the growing flames blasting from a nearby window.
This scene is particularly fraught, as it appears that at any moment this First Baby might be shot, dropped, or incinerated. When The First Baby finally makes it safely to his parents, we collectively breathe a sigh of relief…
… But there are still hundreds of Babies left in this flaming battleground of a hospital!
The Baby evac is relegated to shorter cuts between the main action, as Tequila and Alan blast their way through dozens more Triad Goons (and presumably causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage) until finally confronting Mad Dog.
There’s a quick (but powerful) scene at 1:57, where a couple of Goons blast their way into the nursery, killing two Baby-evacuating SWAT members in the process. The Lead Goon makes the critical mistake of jumping over an improvised barricade, where he finds Teresa laying in wait for him, weapon drawn.
After a tense moment, he realizes he’s out of luck, and spends his final breath insulting her like a total chump before (in classic John Woo fashion) she straight-up empties the entire clip into his chest.
Alan picks up the fight with Mad Dog, as Tequila shoots his way back over to the nursery. Just as Teresa is about to make her way outside, they hear the telltale cry of… a last, forgotten Baby!
Tequila doublebacks to pick up The Last Baby² as Teresa dodges gunfire on her way down the rappel line. Tequila reaches The Last Baby, plugs his ears with cotton, and tells him to “shut up” as a final squad of Goons closes in on their position.
It’s clear from the get-go that this Last Baby is special.
Tequila improvises a lullaby while dispatching the approaching Goons with his free hand— 6 to be precise — the last of which dies gruesomely with a shard of glass plunged right through his neck.
Although Tequila manages to get off a pretty sweet wisecrack to The Baby in middle of this firefight, he is unfortunately left with a bullet wound in the chest — though to be fair, in this movie even significant injuries to the protagonists are treated as mildly irritating at worst.
There is a tender moment where he apologizes and wipes some spattered blood from The Last Baby’s face.
The Triad Goons place C4 explosives sporting red LED clocks all over the hospital as Alan and Mad Dog duke it out. This fight resolves interestingly and I won’t spoil it for you. Some time later, Tequila and Alan meet back up, running into The Triad Boss, who (with his finger on the bomb trigger) taunts them before escaping.
Now out of sight, The Triad Boss triggers the bombs, sending ridiculous fireballs blasting through the entire hospital. Cut off by the fire, Alan gives Tequila one last smoldering look before running off to take down The Boss.
This leaves Tequila and The Last Baby running for dear life through gigantic explosions on the 2nd floor.
Everything is going to hell. Tequila narrowly avoids fiery death at turn after turn.
In a moment of respite, he manages to squeeze in one final wisecrack, before tucking The Last Baby tightly into his jacket, and preparing to escape from the 2nd floor window by tearing a large coil of exposed wire from the wall to use as a rope…
…but not before an explosion sets his (very 90s cut) slacks alight as he sprints towards the open window! After a frantic few moments, The Last Baby totally comes through, and extinguishes Tequila’s pants by heroically pissing down his leg.
Tequila leaps from the hospital mere moments ahead of the biggest fireball mankind has ever seen. He hits the ground and rolls, before making a mad dash across the front parking lot — all while massive explosions tear the hospital apart, sending flaming shrapnel and sparks raining down around him.
Finally reaching the safety of the Police line, The Chief desperately asks, "Tequila, are there any babies left?"
… And the answer is: No. No Chief, there are No👏 Babies👏 Left.👏
Every last one of the hundreds of Babies trapped in that hospital were safely rescued — Babies who surely would have met violent, fiery deaths had not Teresa and Tequila stepped up and taken care of business.
The Last Baby is hastily passed to his parents, without so much as a goodbye from Tequila. And thus ends our time with The Babies.
After this outrageous sequence, the movie quickly wraps up with a brief, perfunctory denouement, centering mainly on Tequila and Alan. This ending was extremely dissatisfying, because at this point I had become extremely invested in the process of saving every last one of these Babies, and to see this plot line so abruptly and unceremoniously closed felt incredibly jarring.
The “Hard Boiled Babies” [HBB] project will allow us to reconnect with these Babies we have become so attached to… by creating a feature-length film about every single one of them.
Unfortunately, The Babies are uncredited. Even if they were, the number of Baby “actors” might differ from the number of Baby “characters” represented on screen.
While we do get a couple long shots of the nursery, the camera is always placed among the bassinets; so we don’t have a clear indication of how many are behind the camera, or the size of the room itself. The largest number of bassinets we see in a single take is 16.³
There are a few of shots of the Nursery from different angles, though the geometry and props don’t always appear to match from one shot to the next. In a Special Features interview, producer Terence Chang reveals⁴ the film was only partially scripted, and shot over a comparatively long period of 120 days; so these sets might have been reconfigured during the shoot.
Due to the age of the film and its production style, locating reliable first-hand accounts of the Nursery configuration (or authorial intention) could prove difficult; but if we were to execute this project, attempts to do so should be made.
In the mean time… making some assumptions from the visible layout,⁵ my best guesses for total Babies are: 19, 22 or 25. Seeing as though next year will mark Hard Boiled’s 25th anniversary: let’s go with 25.
As the setting of “Hard Boiled” is Hong Kong, presumably the bulk of these films would likewise be set in Hong Kong or China (though, some of The Babies having relocated internationally is certainly a possibility).
Filmmakers outside of China should be sensitive to (or at the very least cognizant of) recent commentary on “whitewashing” characters — and cast their films appropriately. Though we can’t be sure that all of the 25 Babies are of Chinese descent, the panning shot at 1:36 indicates that most of them likely are.
Other than the central conceit — ie, each involves a Baby rescued during the events of “Hard Boiled” — these films should be approached with total creative freedom and individuality.
Events which befall us when we are too young to react to (or even comprehend) them have varying affects on us throughout our lives; and these characters will be no different.
Perhaps the fact of a character’s survival of the “Hard Boiled” ordeal has shaped her entire life; and acts as the primary lens through which she understands her reality. Conversely, perhaps this event is now a long-forgotten footnote, just some odd trivia which has no salient effects on her life whatsoever.
A much darker observation: of the many, many innocent civilians killed during the Triad’s attack, presumably some of them would have been parents or relatives of The Babies. Even if a Baby’s entire family escaped the ordeal physically unscathed, experiencing this event as an adult could certainly have lasting psychological and emotional effects.
In any event, other than positing a world in which Triad gangs exert overwhelming martial capabilities, and certain heroic individuals posses constitutions allowing them to easily survive a shocking list of severe injuries (such as close-range shotgun blasts, deep cuts, burns, blunt trauma, and heart-stopping electrical shocks)… the universe of “Hard Boiled” is really quite open to interpenetration. Perhaps these elements suggest a sort of magical realism, which could translate well to any number of different genres or narrative styles.
The Hong Kong of “Hard Boiled” exists at the twilight of British sovereignty, which ended in 1997 (when The Babies were 5 years old). Much has changed during The Babies’ lifetimes; China’s seismic economic boom and gradual political shifts over the last quarter century have had far-reaching effects both domestically and globally. Perhaps these Babies’ narratives will help to add individual shading to (or play out against the backdrop of) these social, political and economic shifts.
Once the 25 films are completed, they could be presented in variety of different ways.
A traveling film festival could be organized to present the 25 HBB films over the course of several days or weeks; ideally beginning and/or ending with a screening of Hard Boiled. Unless there is enough general interest in the project to the point where profits could be expected from ticket sales, I would imagine art spaces (or colleges) would likely be the best home for a project of this nature.
Perhaps more realistically: the films could be made available as a collection. Digital distribution would seem the most reasonable route; and we could “split the difference” between online and theatrical settings by having each HBB film receive a debut screening in its city of origin, which could also be simulcast online and followed by a question-and-answer session with the cast and crew (or something similar). The HBB films could be debuted in this way over the course of a month or so, culminating in the release of the whole collection.
In any event, I would hope that John Woo would find this project interesting enough to engage with it in some capacity. I would be curious to get a sense of how he has personally experienced the changes in China, or at least perceived them from the perspective of an expat living and working in America.
And, of course, I’d like to know if he himself has ever wondered… what ever happened to all those babies from the hospital?
 This comes from an interview with Woo in the special features of the 2007 “Ultimate Edition” DVD. Also in this interview, he mentions this idea came from a real-life incident in Japan — though he doesn’t identify it specifically, the 1955 Morinaga Milk arsenic poisoning incident seems a likely candidate.
 The gender of The Last Baby is not explicitly identified. I am using male pronouns for expediency and tonal flow only; any further comment on broader gender topics is not intended.
 Arranged in 4 rows of 3 (12), while on the far side of the room are 2 bassinets (14), as well as the 2 we see wheeled out of the Nursery (16).
 This interview was an illuminating look into the hit-and-run nature of the creation of this film.
For example: They discovered one of the locations Woo wanted to use (the tea shop in the opening) was slated to be torn down… so they went ahead and filmed this action sequence before the rest of the script was in place; juggling noise complaints from the neighbors (which were subsequently ignored by police because they were fans of Chow Yun-fat), and real life Triad groups demanding “Protection Money”.
 Owing to the configuration from footnote 3, I’m going to guess than any additional rows behind the camera will likewise have 3 bassinets in them, meaning likely totals would be: +1 row(s): 19, +2: 22, or +3: 25.