This is a top-tier ‘heroic bloodshed’ picture by John Woo—a masterclass in action filmmaking with that rare commitment to pathos.
Dir. John Woo
1989 | Hong Kong | Action/Crime/Drama | 111 mins | 1.85:1 | Cantonese
NC16 (passed clean) for pervasive strong violence and some language
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Chu Kong, Kenneth Tsang
Plot: A disillusioned assassin accepts one last hit in hopes of using his earnings to restore vision to a singer he accidentally blinded.
Awards: Won Best Director & Best Film Editing, and Nom. for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay & Best Cinematography (HK Film Awards)
Source: Fortune Star
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on Netflix)
One of John Woo’s finest films, The Killer has long been regarded as a masterclass in action filmmaking, sparking countless other movies that have followed suit but almost always coming up short.
It is hard to think of a movie like, say, Leon: The Professional (1994) or John Wick (2014), without acknowledging the influence of Woo’s work. But The Killer was also inspired by Melville’s French arthouse classic, Le Samourai (1967), a film that Woo has publicly professed his love for.
Inheriting Le Samourai‘s smoky-cool style but subsuming it under what Woo has fashioned as stylistic violence, The Killer tells the story of an unusual hitman with a moral compass, Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat), who hopes to take one last job so that he has enough money to pay for a young woman’s eye surgery. As we see in the prologue, she (Jennie as played by Sally Yeh) becomes almost blind after a stray round from Ah Jong—whilst performing his previous assassination job—hits her.
“You’re an unusual cop.”
“Well, you’re an unusual killer.”
Chow’s performance is iconic, guns blazing and all, though he has able support provided by Chu Kong, who plays Fung Sei, his longtime friend from a triad, as well as Danny Lee, who plays the rebellious Inspector Li Ying who is assigned to capture Ah Jong.
From a human drama level, The Killer‘s commitment to pathos is rare and extraordinary—as much as the film is about masterful action staging and editing (it’s perfect as a textbook example on how to shoot and cut an action picture), it is also a potent portrayal of brotherhood, particularly of scenes involving both Ah Jong and Fung Sei from the traditional ‘loyal gangsters with a code of honour’ point-of-view.
Yet, what’s more admirable is Woo bringing Ah Jong and Inspector Li together as ‘frenemies’, and thus transcending the limits of law in determining what’s (or who’s) moral or not. Their scenes together are some of the most dramatically intense in the film as Woo plays with this thematic dialectic with aplomb.
Critics over the years have understood Woo’s commingling of stylised bloody gunfights and themes of loyalty, sacrifice and brotherhood as ‘Heroic Bloodshed’, which he first popularised with A Better Tomorrow (1986) and further cemented his reputation with Hard Boiled (1992). In between with The Killer, we see Woo at the absolute peak of his powers.