His Chinese gun smuggling ring dismantled, Triad gangster Lee has designs on moving his operation stateside. He’s even found a gwailo benefactor to help make this dream a reality. Alas, old demons come back to haunt him, preventing his plans from truly coming to fruition.
John Woo’s action classic Hard Boiled will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Hollywood has long since appropriated all the hallmarks of Woo’s signature style. Nevertheless, those who remember what action cinema was like pre-John Woo have a deep appreciation for his contribution to the form. In tribute to that aesthetic, director Rich Wolgemuth (with the help of Emmanuel Manzanares) has crafted Ruthless.
Ruthless was originally an entry in 2007’s "True to John Woo” film contest." Though it didn’t win, it came in runner up and received a favorable review from John Woo himself. What’s amazing about it is that it actually captures the feel of Hard Boiled with considerably less to work with than that film. It also manages to be sly parody of the John Woo aesthetic that only a true fan could appreciate.
IBP Stunts Chicago regular Shawn Bernal plays the heroic Yuen, who is obviously a stand in for the Chow Yun Fat character Tequila from Hard Boiled. He even wears similar tactical gear and perfectly mimics Chow’s two fisted shooting style. His impression is helped by cinematographer Mike Bove, who appears to have studied Hard Boiled to the nth degree. The camera roams and zooms restlessly. The pans are sometimes jarring, and slow motion is used at choice moments.
Norman Yap is a parody of the kinds of villains often found in prototypical “Heroic Bloodshed” films. He sports a gaudy gold chain and a Fu-Manchu goatee that comes right out of a Shaw Brothers production. In another hilarious touch, there’s even a stand in for Philip Kwok’s eye-patched henchmen Mad Dog. It’s clear that the makers of Ruthless want viewers to know exactly what they are paying tribute to.
Ruthless has nowhere near the massive body count of a classic John Woo flick, but director Rich Wolgemuth compensates for this by going for impact instead over quantity. Actual squibs are used instead of the obviously fake digital variant. Ironically, that decision works against the film at a key moment. Blood spatters hit the inside of a window in close up. The stage blood used has such a thick consistency that it calls attention to itself.
Ruthless is an essentially an extended inside joke. It almost plays like a well-executed Saturday Night Live sketch. It actually looks like one of the many “Heroic Bloodshed” films that emerged in the wake of John Woo’s early success. In any other case that would be an insult. In this case it’s meant as a compliment. Rich Wolgemuth obviously knows the work of John Woo well, and manages to craft a lovingly self-aware homage.