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.
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. And again, that ending…. man, those are some emotions!
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?