The Killer (1989)
By: Mr Intolerance on September 26, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Hong Kong Legends (UK). Region 2, PAL. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, Cantonese DD 5.1. 107 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: John Woo
Starring: Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Kenneth Tsang, Shing Fui On
Screenplay: John Woo
Country: Hong Kong
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This is flat-out the best action film ever made. John Woo has made some fantastic films: Hard Boiled, God of Gamblers, and A Better Tomorrow all spring readily to mind (then he went to the US and his films' quality rapidly declined), but this is the masterpiece. Hollywood films by any other director, Woo included, aren't even in the hunt and even other HK action flicks I've seen pale into insignificance before it. The Killer is a hyper-kinetic, frenzied and bloody bullet ballet that sears your eyeballs with hot lead right from the get-go (a rather appropriate metaphor, as it turns out).

Chow Yun Fat AND Danny Lee in the same film? If only Anthony Wong was here as well, we'd have had the trifecta of uber-cool HK actors. Both male leads drive this film; no moronic Hollywood buddy film like Lethal Weapon, The Killer oozes style, intelligence and a stunning awareness of the visual. As a study of friendship, loyalty and honour, this is the kind of overly macho film that the Western tried to be in the late 60s/early 70s, and only the Italians seemed to be able to make. Woo takes that lead given us by the likes of Sergio Leone, and runs with it, and in doing so has made one of the best films of all time. Fat's Morricone-style harmonica riff simply reinforces this point.

Ah Jong (Chow Yun Fat in his best role – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Bollocks.) is an assassin – and a fucking good one - but one with honour and a kind of integrity. After a gangland hit goes a bit pear-shaped and he's to blame for blinding innocent night-club singer Jenny, he takes on responsibility for her, develops a quite touching and gentle bond with her and wants to take her away to the States for a cornea transplant before her eyes deteriorate too far and she's left blind for life. Not your average killer-for-hire, but one with a sense of right and wrong, despite his given profession. Fat is an actor who you can't help but notice when he's on screen – he could be scratching his nuts or eating a Snickers, he'd still be mesmerising. At the height of his career (and the boy's still got a whole bunch of years left) he makes Clint Eastwood look like Jerry Lewis. He simply dominates every scene he's in, and Danny Lee is no fuckin' slouch, by the way. Charisma, cool – Fat's got 'em in spades; this is a bravura performance.    

Lee plays Inspector Li, a hard-bitten Dirty Harry style of cop, not afraid to get his hands dirty, world-weary and bitter, trying to bring Ah Jong to justice, but realising their similarities, and with a kind of grudging respect for his counterpart.

Ah Jong wants to get out of his trade – one more hit is all he needs to be able to finance his and Jenny's relocation to Texas – but the Triads aren't renowned for being forgiving for those who try to leave their ranks, and when double crossed by his pal Sei Fung on behalf of the Triads, Ah Jong unwillingly takes up his guns again to protect him and his gal – and his new pal, resulting in some of the most full-tilt balls to the wall stunning action sequences committed to celluloid.

Loyalty, friendship, honour, justice, penance, salvation – it might seem a bit grandiose to say that this is what this film is about, but, well, it is. Sure, it's told in the form of a gangster film, but nevertheless, it pulls no punches as a morality tale, everyone gets what's coming to them; everyone pays for their sins – and some innocents tragically get killed along the way for having drifted, knowingly or not, into the netherworld of gangland.

What's cool about the characterisation is that Ah Jong can go from being a merciless extermination-machine to a tender, caring hero at the flick of a switch – and a self sacrificing one at that. When poor, blind Jenny is in danger (or in one sequence, a wounded child), he spares no time or effort in saving the imperilled, even at the risk of his own life. Li is much the same – and it's interesting watching him regain, or possibly even attain, a sense of morality as the film progresses – the character is initially (oddly enough) the bad guy, but the audience shifts to viewing him in a more positive light as the film develops. His grey and white striped suit, however, remains appalling…

Actually, as the film develops, the score becomes also progressively more elegiac – the schmaltzy pop toons of the opening scenes (working cleverly in juxtaposition with the on-screen violence) turning into minor key tragic serenades, which tend to mirror the sadness of what we see, something I only picked up on the third recent viewing (I'm up to number six at the moment – hey, I've only had two weeks, gimme a break!).   

So then – reasons for loving this film so much I want to make a baby with it:

Chow Yun Fat's performance, for all the reasons listed above – a truly stellar performance. Watching him school some foolish bitches who try to molest Jenny was an education in and of it self.

The story: intelligent, bold and drawn in broad brushstrokes, yet with enough close detail to make it a truly personal and involving tale; this is great scriptwriting. Think of how good Reservoir Dogs was the first time you saw it, then take out all the gratuitous pop culture references. That good. Actually from Reservoir Dogs: think that bit where we see Mr Pink's escape from the law – that, but for 107 minutes. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but that's the level of excitement I hit whenever I watch this.

The set pieces: the fight at the nightclub; the brilliant assassination at the dragon boat race scene, and the carnage that follows; the hit in the parking lot; the massacre at the safe-house; the truly amazing climactic assault at the church, leading to an almost Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-style ending. Fight scene choreography par excellence. If you were going to shoot an action sequence, you would have to watch this film first to see how it's done. Although I must say, I did keep being reminded of Hot Fuzz, of the bit in the pub where Nick Frost asks Simon Pegg if he'd ever fired two guns at once while flying through the air… Well, it is a bit of a John Woo cliché – like having a character on their back, propelling themselves backwards by both legs while firing two pistols, one in each hand.

The cinematographydazzling, in a word. Peter Pau should have won a fuckin' Oscar for this.

This film doesn't have any of the silly, campy Jackie Chan style humour that peppers other HK films – even blackly hellish and insanely violent Cat III films like Ebola Syndrome, Naked Killer and The Untold Story descend into Chaplin-esque farce at times – this baby is played for tragedy, and that is definitely one of its strengths – well, the bit where Li's off-sider Ah Tsang Yeh gets yelled at by one of Jenny's neighbours aside. At times it reminded me of Eastwood's Western revenge-tragedy masterpiece The Unforgiven, particularly with its riff on the unwilling killer motif; Ah Jong states about guns at one point, automatic in hand, "Hard to pick up, difficult to put down."

Visually breath-taking, The Killer is equal parts Sam Peckinpah slow-motion action poetry, jump-cut blink and you'll miss it action assault on the senses, gritty film noir grimness and black humour, and romanticised Godfather-esque visual beauty. If you can find a better action film, I'd suggest you're probably asleep and having a wet dream. Or wanking.

Now, where can I find that Criterion Collection edition…
I haven't seen this since it was on VHS, and the picture back then never did this film justice. This version does this film all kinds of justice – a beautifully shot film, The Killer needs to look good, and this version is a nice looking piece of work: no grain, no artefacts – sharp as a tack visuals for every blood-drenched 107 minutes of its run time. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ration, and unlike the Criterion edition (which is out of print and netting disgusting amounts of loot on eBay) this Hong Kong legends release is 16x9 enhanced.
I don't speak any form of Chinese, so in terms of dialogue – well, it sounds clear enough to me. And as for the gunfire and explosions…oh yes. The action happens around you – seriously, with my stereo hooked up to the telly-box, I was dodging bullets about as much as Chow Yun Fat was. But I didn't look anywhere near as cool as he did doing it.
Extra Features
There's a feature length commentary with Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, and interviews with Sally Yeh and Kenneth Tsang – where the fuck were John Woo, Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee? You also get an interview with cinematographer Peter Pau, and some deleted scenes (significant dip in picture and sound quality, but worthwhile for watching Danny Lee beat the fuck out of some drunken salarymen – crowd control with a metal garbage tin lid!) - as well as a trailer archive of the UK and international releases of The Killer. Trailers, trailers, trailers: Red Wolf, My Lucky Stars, Project A Part 2, The Story of Ricky, The Young Master, and The Avenging Fist. All up, not a bad package – but seriously: where were the director and the male leads? To me, their absence is a glaring, almost unforgivable, omission – this film is driven by the leads, and as this is the director's masterwork, he needed to be represented.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
If you call yourself an action fan and you haven't seen The Killer, you have a new quest – this film will give you direction and purpose in life and will make you a better person. Honestly, I get a real charge out of this film every time I see it. I've been boring the bollocks off my friends about this film since my buddy Ripley lent it to me a couple of weeks back (cheers mate!) – not having seen this movie since its Australian video release back in the early 90s has made watching it an even sweeter experience. This film is so good that when I finally get planted, I want a copy of it buried with me, so that when archaeologists dig up my remains, they'll know I had good taste in movies. Hunt The Killer down and watch it immediately. It is the fucking bomb.

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