Directed by: John Woo || Produced by: Tsui Hark
Screenplay by: John Woo || Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Kenneth Tsang, Chu Kong, Shing Fui-On
Music by: Lowell Lo || Cinematography: Peter Pau, Wong Wing-hung || Editing by: Fan Kung Ming || Country: Hong Kong || Language: Cantonese
Running Time: 110 minutes
My first John Woo-film, this “gun-foo” shoot ’em-up tragedy is unique among action films if only for its poetically tragic ending. However, The Killer is so much more that its bullet-ridden climax. The action scenes are astounding and lead man Chow Yun-Fat shines as a ruthless assassin with a heart of gold, as does co-star Danny Lee as a hard-boiled cop in his own right. The film is paced well and piles the stakes higher and higher until our heroes’ pulse-pounding final stand. This is one of John Woo’s finest and most action-packed features.
1989’s The Killer often competes with 1992’s Hard-Boiled among fans for the title of “Best Shoot ‘Em Up” action flick of all time. Although I would argue that Hard-Boiled has the edge in pacing and sheer scale of its gun-battles, The Killer comes as a close second for me within Woo’s filmography. Woo’s imagery, particularly of his star, Yun-Fat, is captivating in the most brutal and yet beautiful ways possible, a complete aestheticization of violence. Shots of white doves flying in the background against the lead-infused violence, a trademark of Woo’s action pictures, started with this film.
Some of the major plot-devices and character actions stretch beyond the realm of believability, but they are forgivable enough given the sheer spectacle that occurs on screen in almost every scene. Furthermore, Yun-Fat’s love affair with a women he accidentally blinds near the beginning of the film gives unexpected emotional weight to this would-be standard shoot-em-up. This romance becomes critical to the suspense that builds into the film’s awesome church-shootout.
As is typical with Woo’s films, gore, blood, and gun-violence are cranked to the extreme in every action scene. I wouldn’t call the best gunfights in this movie better than the greatest heights of Hard-Boiled’s hospital scenes, but The Killer comes damned close on multiple occasions, and its exciting shootouts have their own distinct flavor and unique style. But don’t worry — lot’s of people still get killed. And Yun-Fat looks appropriately awesome in every shot.
Two things this movie does have over Hard-Boiled are a more likable partner for Yun-Fat (Danny Lee) and a slightly more colorful villain (Shing Fui-On). They are not worlds better than their Hard-Boiled counterparts, but they play their parts well in the film, and are particularly important in the film’s conclusion. Together, everything from the great supporting cast to the surprising romantic subplot to Woo’s immaculate gun fights build to one of the gutsier conclusions in action filmmaking history; for all the many cliches, both visual and thematic, that Woo’s filmography, including The Killer, would popularize among his descendants, from the Wachowskis to Quentin Tarantino to Chad Stahelski, the heart of its story is anything but formulaic.
The Killer is a great first picture for movie-buffs wanting to get initiated into Hong Kong-action cinema. It doesn’t quite reach the ridiculous action zeniths of Woo’s best film, yet it’s a great action film in its own right. The Killer is also one of Woo’s most well known projects, and is a fan-favorite among many. Besides, if your action movie’s main “letdowns” are that it is not quite on the same level of awesomeness as a film like Hard-Boiled, you’re doing a ton of things right. The Killer remains an enduring action-classic, with almost as much heart as it has bullets. This is the ultimate action movie melodrama, with an ending to match.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Killer is one of John Woo’s most energetic and intense action-extravaganzas. It features arguably his strongest screenplay and best characterizations. Yun-Fat’s development with Sally Yeh and Danny Lee are deeper than expected for a narrative like this, and those relationships end on a gusty, surprising move.
— However… some character motives and actions require more suspension of disbelief than I would like. Numerous action sequences exceed cartoon levels of violence.
? I was introduced to John Woo’s work by total accident when I stumbled upon a fan-made music video for Poets of the Fall’s “Dawn” on YouTube, which features the final gunfight in slow-motion. Ain’t the Internet great?