An operatic cop thriller widely considered one of the forerunners of the Hong Kong action boom, John Woo’s The Killer is essential viewing for fans of arty shootouts. This 1989 motion picture deals round after round of balletic gunfights, yet it maintains a distinctly moral core that plays to both the animation of criminality and the compassion of friendship.
Woo also wrote the picture, with producer Tsui Hark initially refusing to finance it. After star Chow Yun-fat ponied up some of the green via his Golden Princess Film production company, The Killer was a go. Woo shot it from a concise treatment and had just 90 days to accomplish the feat, coming up with a bloody showcase that would make Sam Peckinpah jealous.
Chow Yun-fat stars as Ah Jong, a Hong Kong assassin ready to quit the biz. He’s on his last gig for the Triads when a shootout erupts and a nightclub singer named Jennie (Sally Yeh) is injured. She begins to lose her vision and Ah Jong want to help her by providing the funding for a corneal transplant. Meanwhile, detective Li Ying (Danny Lee) is on the case.
Li tracks Ah Jong throughout Hong Kong, but he develops an affinity for the man after he witnesses his compassion. The Triads, led by Hay Wong Hoi (Shing Fui-on), are none too pleased about Ah Jong’s change in lifestyle and target him. Ah Jong’s pal Fung Sei (Chu Kong) tries to help out and the two connect over being among the last of a dying breed.
As violent as The Killer is, Woo never strays from connecting the gunfire to consequences. Blindness is explored, with Jennie gradually losing her sight as the movie progresses. It’s up to Ah Jong to see her through the world and that task becomes more complicated when Li arrives as a just man. She sees through the wilted ploy, but her loyalties are unquestionable.
Sometimes, Woo gets heavy-handed to make his point. Much of The Killer rings like Asian melodrama, complete with Ah Jong playing the harmonica while overlooking a church. There are freeze frames and plenty of slow-motion, all while a fraught set of king-size gestures fills the air. Doves float away in a church shootout. A Virgin Mary explodes.
Other times, it’s up to the actors to do the job. Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee are brought together in a buddy cop scenario for the ages. Woo often sees them as doubles and sets up several visuals to emphasize this. Sometimes they are back-to-back in a gunfight. One scene finds Li sitting in Ah Jong’s chair while Jennie’s torch song drifts like cigarette smoke.
While the world around Li and Ah Jong presents a concrete dualism of light and dark, the friendship encourages synergy. They both have a sense of justice and they both exhibit compassion, which accounts for the blossoming of kinship. Even as they find themselves on opposite sides of the law, there is a common good.
Of course, the common good doesn’t riddle through The Killer as some sort of optimistic symbol. It’s a respite. Woo’s interest in violence comes because it has a self-defeating quality. Nobody gets out unscathed. Bullets fly and blood is shed in creeks of crimson. In this way, the filmmaker is able to avoid pure spectacle for the sake of it.
That’s not to say he doesn’t side with the ludicrous nature of violence, though. Woo’s characters empty half-clips into their opponents, with the groundwork laid in excess of a necessary kill. Everything in this world of infinite conflict is pushed too far and the action scenes are all the more rewarding for it, with a deluge of white-clad bad guys heading to the Cross like lambs to the slaughter serving as culmination.
Woo’s The Killer is captivating. It works on multiple levels, like all great pieces of art, and it provides an almost otherworldly sense of movement. From its religious overtones to its explorations of empathy, this is an electrifying piece of cinema that doesn’t stop firing until the clip is empty.