THE KILLER, 1989
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Kenneth Tsang
A disillusioned assassin accepts one last hit in hopes of using his earnings to restore vision to a singer he accidentally blinded, only to be double-crossed by his boss. At the same time heís being pursued by a hard-bitten cop. They must join together to take on the mob boss, in order to save themselves, and the singer.
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John Wooís career pinnacle, is the influential action drama, The Killer. Often cited by young directors throughout the 90ís and 00ís, as one of the inspiring films to spur on their own creative urges. Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of The Killer. In simple terms, itís one of the action genres master works. It is also a fine example of how watered down an overseas director can become, should he move to Hollywood at any point in his career. Woo delivered a string of grade A, action features during his time in Hong Kong. Aside from the Killer, most notable were A Better Tomorrow, Bullett In The Head, and his final Hong Kong feature, Hard Boiled. The Killer though, still remains Wooís greatest triumph, particularly on a dramatic level, even if Hard-Boiled does trump this one on the set pieces.
A simple tale of assassins, cops and mobsters, itís a film with dramatic punch, character, and exceptional acting. As hitman extraordinaire, Ah Jong, Chow Yun-Fat is sensational. Ah Jong ends up blinding a nightclub singer in a hit gone bad. Racked with guilt, having already grown weary of his profession as it was, Ah Jong befriends her (unbeknownst to her, that he is responsible for blinding her), and sets about trying to help her regain her vision. That requires money, and in turn that means, one list hit for Ah Jong. The result of that hit, now means that rogue cop, Li Yung (Danny Lee) is hot on his heels to add further complication. The role pushes and pulls Yun-Fat. His conviction in the part, truly attests to his legendary status in Hong Kong, ranking him there, as De Niro, Hoffman, Nicholson etc, are ranked in the US (Or Paul Hogan in AustraliaÖtee hee!). The difficulty for Woo and Chow, in this film is to give a hitman, who blinds an innocent woman any sympathy from the audience. Itís one of those challenges, that truly great films put upon themselves, and pull off. The Killer pulls it off, thanks to director and lead.
Aiding Yun Fat ably, is Sally Yeh as Jenny. She gives a fantastic portrayal, and Woo is generous in his dramatic distribution. She gets some fantastic moments to deliver, and she delivers well. Kenneth Tsang as Ah Jongs long time friend, who betrays him, and then tries to redeem himself, is also brilliant. Itís a fantastic performance by him in support, of real gravitas. Indeed, Yun-Fat and Tsang share one of THOSE scenes. You know what I mean? Well Iíll tell you! A scene like Pacino before his first hit in The Godfather, or De Niro and Pacino sharing screen in Heat. A scene where fates, directors, camera men, actors, editors and material, all conspire to bring about, a moment of utter, gut churning exceptionality. The scene is the moment when Yun-Fat, discovers that Tsang has betrayed him. The look in Yun-Fats face pierces you through the heart, itís immensely powerful, and Tsang is also superb in the scene too. Itís a magical moment in cinema, a moment of A++, in an A+ film. Woo then has the audacity, while youíre still resuscitating yourself, to pull the rug from under you, and punch you in the face with an action scene to break up the dramatic moment. Furthermore, this is all before Iíve mentioned Danny Leeís exceptional performance. He and Yun-Fat play off each other brilliantly. Again Wooís well loved themes of duality, and mutual respect of opposing forces, comes into play here.
As with any John Woo film, thereís an expectation that comes regarding the action sequences. The Killer delivers on this count. Thereís some superb gun battles here, but none more so than the visually arresting, church set finale. Itís not even so much the technical wizardry, the note perfect cutting or the death defying stunt work, but itís the fact that thereís drama unfolding amongst the carnage. Yun-Fat and Lee still have to emote between firing off shotguns, machine guns and all manner of lead propellants. The visual iconography on scene is haunting at times. Thereís some truly spell binding shots, and Woo really goes gaga for the religious imagery. Add into the mix a truly stunning slo-mo short, though brief, is beautiful. It has Lee on his back firing a shotgun, while a dove flies away behind him in shot. Why thereís a dove there, I couldnít tell you, but it is still a stunning shot. Aside from Wooís gunplay mastery, he still maintains a drama first policy, and though this may delve into melodrama in moments, especially near the end, thatís more down to cultural style. But on the whole, Wooís love of American cinema means that his film here translates so well overseas. The respect for Scorsese in particular is very evident in this film.
Aside, the film is expertly edited by Kung Min Fan, and also very well shot by Peter Pau, who won an Oscar for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Thereís also a haunting score here, by Lowell Lo. Elsewhere, the production design is top notch, while the costuming makes for a very stylish film. Yes, itís all sharp suited hitmen or gangsters. Itís all very sharp looking and cool (aside from a really dodgy fake moustache that Yun-Fat must endure, and white boiler suit wearing bad guys).
In summation, the Killer is a masterpiece. From itís hard hitting opening, to itís spectacular, explosive, ending, it excites and wrenches. Itís dramatic, gritty but poignant and deep too. Not to say itís a total misery fest either, the film has sprinklings of humour too. In my opinion, a finer film to come out of Hong Kong, there has not been!