The Understated Legacy of John Woo’s The Killer (1989)
How Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee Keep John Woo’s ‘The Killer’ fresh, awesome and Ultimate!
Assassin “Ah Jong” (Chow Yun-fat) has a tender heart in the profession least suited to it. During an assignment at a bar, he accidentally injures the lounge singer Jennie (Sally Yeh) in the eyes. Remorseful, he vows to take one last hit to pay to have her damaged corneas replaced before she goes totally blind.
Unfortunately, the last hit does not go smoothly. Ah Jong kills the mark, but when a little girl is injured in the skirmish, he takes her to a hospital, jeopardizing the mission and giving the police a big clue to his identity. The mob bosses who have him on payroll are not pleased. They not only refuse to give Ah Jong the much-needed money, but also have a hit put on him to cover their tracks.
Enter Inspector Li Ying (Danny Lee). Idealistic and determined to get his man, he pursues Ah Jong, constantly frustrated by the hitman’s cleverness and the bad faith of his superiors. Like Ah Jong, he has a lot riding on the success of his mission.
John Woo’s The Killer
Initially a cat-and-mouse game between criminal and cop, the story takes twists and turns which eventually forces the two men to team up against the mob bosses, who prove a greater evil than the principled Ah Jong could ever be.
The Killer was one of John Woo’s first international smashes. A mash-up of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Jean Pierre-Melville’s Le Samourai, and Spy vs. Spy comics, it is a movie as excessively stylish and thrilling as it is soulful and somber.
The film’s first shoot-out telegraphs Woo’s approach to onscreen violence. We get a stylish battle with guns blazing and bodies crumpling to the ground in dramatic arcs. The editing is fast, getting the viewer pumped. Then Jennie, in the wrong place at the worst possible time, ends up having her eyes damaged when her face is too close to Ah Jong’s gun when he fires.
Falling back, Jennie screeches and flails, face covered in blood. The effect is disturbing, putting a damper on any “this is AWESOME” feelings the viewer might be having. No spectacle here, only an innocent human being in horrible agony. Woo keeps this ambivalence to violent spectacle throughout the movie. As Ah Jong says, even though he takes jobs to kill “bad people,” somehow good people always end up getting hurt.
A Classic Action Noir
In terms of feel, The Killer has much in common with classic film noir. All the old-school tropes are at play: the hitman with a heart of gold willing to do one last job, the good woman who brings out the best in him, the idealistic cop at odds with the rest of the force, hard-nosed criminals who scoff at the anti-hero’s moral code. The tone is as world-weary and troubled as its protagonist.
While his compassion and eventual love for Jennie motivates Ah Jong, his relationship with Inspector Li is the heart of the film. They start as enemies, only for Li to become moved by Ah Jong’s compassion and nobility. When circumstances force the two men to work together, they realize they might not be as different as they imagined.
As Ah Jong observes, both use guns in their work, both have drawn innocent people into the crossfire (early in the movie, Li fires a shot without warning on a crowded tram, accidentally startling a woman with a heart condition to death in the process). By the film’s conclusion, it is the bond between these men which leaves the greatest mark, more than the admittedly lightweight love story.
The Killer’s Legacy Examined
Some find The Killer too melodramatic. When I first saw the film at a college screening, about half of the audience laughed during the more emotional moments. Some viewers are taken aback by how operatic the acting gets, moments where characters dramatically call out one another’s names or sob openly. Many seem to believe emotional vulnerability is antithetical to the action genre. Even fleeting moments like Bill Duke’s character mourning the death of a comrade in an action classic like Predator can take one aback with such expectations in mind.
However, the high emotionalism is a good match for the film’s excessive violence. It fits because this is a movie all about what makes a badass killer vulnerable, both physically and internally: love, friendship, compassion, nobility. By having him so vulnerable, Woo and star Chow Yun-fat amp up the suspense, making the viewer more intimately connect with Ah Jong’s desire for redemption against all odds.
The film also has odd comedic moments that nevertheless work perfectly. Ah Jong and Li refer to one another by silly nicknames, Shrimp Head and Small B respectively (in older English translations, they were dubbed Dumbo and Mickey Mouse). In one scene, they have a stand-off in Jenny’s apartment and the singer’s impaired vision prevents her from realizing the two are aiming guns right at each other’s faces. She offers them tea and initiates small talk, injecting light comedy into the suspenseful sequence.
A Killer Climax!
The climax is legendary. Set in a church illuminated by candlelight, Ah Jong and Li face their inner and outer demons in one of the most brutal yet beautiful confrontations in all cinema. Emotions run high and the final moments are devastating, putting the viewer through full dramatic catharsis. This is one of few action-thrillers where I have to issue a “make sure you have Kleenex nearby” warning.
The Killer’s legacy cannot be overstated. Its long shadow can be seen in countless Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Baz Luhrmann movies. An American remake has been in the talks since the early 1990s, but one has to wonder what the point would be, since the original remains a vital, exciting experience from one of action cinema’s modern masters.
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