When you think about what makes up a “stereotypical” John Woo movie, you have a pretty healthy list of tropes: 1) characters firing two guns at once, 2) clips being emptied to kill basically one person, 3) heavy Catholic symbolism, 4) two men on opposite sides of the law, 5) liberal use of slow motion, 6) a chase involving speed boats, 7) doves aplenty…
I could go on, but you get the idea already. Woo has definite things he likes to use over and over again in his action films, and yet he’s able to make it different enough and entertaining each time. And while he’d made several movies prior, perhaps the best example of this is still his 1989 action epic The Killer.
The Killer is one of a subset of Hong Kong action movies known as “Heroic Bloodshed” movies, meaning lots of people get shot up, but the good guys do too. In fact, the original Cantonese title of the film is Dip huet seung hung, which translates to “Bloodshed of Two Heroes.” This subgenre is also notable for having very dramatic themes such as brotherhood, loyalty, honor, betrayal, and redemption; real Shakespearean stuff. And like most films lumped into a subgenre, the term didn’t come around until after these movies had already been made, and was coined by editor Rick Baker (not the makeup guy). While names like Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, and Johnnie To were all makers of this type of action movie, it was John Woo who made it a sensation.
Woo made some great movies before The Killer — A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II — and he made a lot of great movies after — Hard Boiled and a bunch of really-fun-but-sort-of-silly American films — but I would contend his best achievement, his magnum opus, is The Killer. It’s everything you could want in an action movie; it doesn’t even waste a second for the action to start.
The film stars Chow Yun-Fat (of course) as Ah Jong, a hired assassin about to do his final job for the Triads: taking out a rival mob boss. He performs this task in the back of a nightclub where a singer named Jenny (Sally Yeh) is performing. During the gunfight, Ah Jong fires his pistol too close to Jenny’s face, damaging her corneas and leaving her, after some surgery, with blurred-and-worsening vision. Feeling horrible, Ah Jong visits Jenny as much as possible without her knowing it was he who blinded her. Because of the botched last job, Ah Jong agrees to do a last-last job: taking out a very public figure in a very public place.
While this is going on, a cop named Detective Yi Ling (Danny Lee) is getting in trouble yet again for being too reckless, which this time is the result of him chasing a suspect onto a city bus and then shooting at him despite a hostage and dozens of passengers. The hostage ends up having a heart attack, so Yi is in the dog house for sure. He’s put on the detail to guard the public figure as he takes part in a ceremony for Chinese New Year, and after Ah Jong kills the man using a high-powered rifle in a boat, the detective gives chase. But it’s all been a set-up. When Ah Jong makes it to the shore, he’s ambushed by Triad members, and a little girl is injured in the process. Ah Jong takes her to the nearest hospital and Det. Yi marvels at this very different kind of killer, who’s concerned for the lives of innocents.
Eventually, the two men meet because of Jenny, who desperately needs a corneal transplant or she’ll be irreparably blind. Unfortunately, to afford this, Ah Jong needs the money he was supposed to be paid from the Triads, who, let me remind you, still want him dead. Reluctantly, the cop and the killer team up to unleash a hurricane of bullets on a seemingly never-ending sea of bad guys, taking a slug or nine themselves in the process.
What makes this movie great isn’t the story, which is both very simple and needlessly complicated — it’s a John Woo movie, so of course it’s these things. The Killer stands out because Woo’s action direction and choreography is unmatched, even by today’s standards. His movies have been called “bullet ballets” and that’s entirely accurate; characters fire two guns whilst jumping through the air, or spin around in slow-motion while unloading full clips into one person. And is reloading a thing? Almost never, unless it becomes a plot point. I laugh, too, because Ah Jong is sort of an asshole when he kills people. He aims low, basically shooting two guns directly into people’s abdomens and groins. Overkill doesn’t exist in a Woo movie.
The action set pieces start out impressive and only get more so as the movie progresses. The standouts are the penultimate gunfight in the “safe” house in broad daylight and the utter barrage of carnage in the half-constructed Catholic church that serves as the film’s climax. Both of these are base-under-siege scenes in which Chow and Lee take on about 60 guys apiece until the locations are just a sea of spent shells, destroyed property, and dead nameless thugs. Both of these are inversions of Woo’s final sequence in A Better Tomorrow II, in which three good guys lay siege to a mansion overflowing with bad guys. At least here they have the tactical advantage of being in a stationary position.
Ultimately, despite the over-the-top action, this is actually a movie about friendship and brotherhood. Both Ah Jong and Detective Yi have partner/friends on whom they rely. Ah Jong has Sidney, a longtime Triad member who has been his close confidant for years. However, in the course of the action, Sidney is forced to give Ah Jong up, leading to the constant attempts on his life. But, true to form in a Heroic Bloodshed movie, Sidney needs to make amends for this crime against his friend and spends the rest of the movie attempting to do so. Likewise, Yi has Det. Tsang, who is his partner but also friend and mentor who gives him advice when the world seems out to get him. Both Tsang and Sidney die in the course of the film, which fortifies their respective hero’s stance.
This leads to Ah Jong and Yi having to rely on one another and become as close as people who serve together in a war. It’s a deeper bond than simply friendship. They start out as enemies, become begrudging allies, then partners, and finally at the end they are friends, as evidenced by freeze frames during the final battle. This is the template of the buddy action movie and Woo himself would use these ideas time and again.
The Killer is hands-down one of the best action films ever made. It’s got John Woo and Chow Yun-fat at the top of their games, both individually and as collaborators. While it didn’t make a splash right away in Hong Kong, it would pick up rave reviews from Western critics and Woo would eventually receive the Best Director award from the Hong Kong Film Awards. Woo dedicated the film to Jean-Pierre Melville and Martin Scorsese and the film has in turn influenced directors like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. That’s a pretty great pedigree all around.