The Killer (1989)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. Unforgettable.

Easy to pick up. Hard to put down.”

If Hard Boiled is the John Woo film with the most action, The Killer has the most drama. It forms the perfect reflection to Hard Boiled in that it represents the full emotional sweep Woo is capable of. They are a perfectly balanced yin and yang, and easily the greatest “action” films ever made. This is a delicate film, one of deep characterization and involvement. It is a metaphoric meditation on the meaning of self-preservation and one’s moral code.

Just to preface, this story is about emptiness and pain. These are people with codes of honor who are beaten by a world so far gone that they find no solace in any of it.

The film opens with the Killer (Chow Yun-fat) (depending on your subtitles named: John, Jeff, or Ah Jong) waiting for his next assignment. His contact arrives and gives him his information. Sidney is a former assassin himself and feels a kinship towards Jong but cannot rectify this with his business ethics. Ah Jong  arrives in a nightclub and then erupts into an detached slow motion infused bout of violence but inadvertently blinds the club singer.

Six months pass and we see that Jong can not shake his guilt over blinding Jenny. In his mind he never harms anyone who is an innocent, and yet he has destroyed her entire life. This one little rule has kept him from questioning his actions for years but now he can no longer hide from himself. They are  both destroyed, for Jong’s personal code has been shattered. He spends all of his time watching Jenny and finally rescues her from street thugs. This puts them together for the first time and romance begins to blossom. (Yes I know this sounding a bit like Magnificent Obsession.)

He decides to take one more job in order to pay for an operation to restore Jenny’s sight. Meanwhile,  Detectives Li and Chang are partners who meet constant aggression with the Triads. They are assigned to protect an important businessman who everyone knows to be a Triad leader. Li witnesses Jong killing their man and leaps into pursuit with Chang. Jong is double crossed and ambushed by a squad of Triads. In the crossfire a little girl is mortally wounded and Jong risks his life to save her. He grabs a car with the detectives in pursuit and instead of trying to get away rushes into the emergency room to save the girl. This selfless act combined with the grace of his exit from the hospital begins to plant a seed of respect in Li’s mind for Jong. They may be on opposing sides, but they share the same principles.

The Triad who hired Jong now wants him dead because he was seen committing the assassination. It’s all part of the rules. Li makes a connection between the mysterious killer and the gunman in the nightclub. He and Chang determine that Jong will probably have made contact with Jenny.

Jong refuses to leave without his money and this pushes Sidney to go beyond himself to try and get it for his friend. They agree to meet in the church…

The Killer is all of the foundation of Woo’s previous films but with a confidence to simply do what the director wanted. This frees him up considerably and allows for the film to become effortless. Not once does it ever become melodramatic. Slow motion and repeating shots in rapid succession became his “trademark. But I must tell you, it was all by accident!” (Woo, Fox Lorber commentary) Here, the “Triad” gangster film of Hong Kong action cinema becomes something else entirely.

If you really look at it, no one wins. *SPOILER* In the ending, John dies and his eyes are shot up so that he cannot donate them to Jenny. In a moment of pure agony, Jenny and Jong crawl on the ground grasping to find each other in blindness before Jong finally expires right next to his love who cannot find him. Li then executes Weng as he surrenders to the police so Li will be arrested for murder. And the money will be confiscated by the police so Jennie will not receive her operation in any case and become permanently blind. Everybody loses. Game over. *END SPOILER* Trust me, this one will keep you dwelling over it’s ending for days on end. Days.

The Killer is Woo’s masterpiece, forming a perfect circle with Hard Boiled as the ultimate in action cinema. Chow Yun-fat is one of the most charismatic leads in the history of time. Every note is so perfectly played that you fall under the film’s spell. This is life-changing stuff. What can we ever do to get Woo to make films like this again?

“You’re an unusual cop.”

“You’re an unusual killer.”

EDITIONS: The Killer somehow fares even worse than Hard Boiled on video. In Region 1 there was the Criterion disc which was non-anamorphic, color tweaked and damaged. The Fox Lorber disc used the same transfer but the color scheme was a bit muted, contrast was boosted, and the image was cropped. The John Woo commentary is great though. It repeats some of the things from the Criterion track, but here Woo is fired up and gives a very interesting listen.

Avoid the Dragon Dynasty release like the plague. The DVD and Blu-ray were sourced from the German DVD transfer from EMS which is in 25fps PAL format. The PAL to NTSC conversion was done badly and the image is thus interlaced. The original German DVD has more information than the Blu-ray!! This Blu is probably the worst I’ve ever seen, it’s 1080i interlaced, undetailed, runs at PAL speed, has DNR and should be burned. The DVD has more detail!!

Your best bet is to track down a foreign edition on DVD because the previous US editions are long out of print. I personally watch the Criterion DVD because it was my first experience with the film and I’m used to the way it looks. Plus I just really really hate PAL speedup. There’s a new Hong Kong Blu-ray out that is supposed to be marginally better than the DD disc, but it lacks the original mono track. It is likely just an upscaled SD master though.

And I do hate the English opening credits on some prints. The white text is huge and fills the screen wrecking the tonal balance.

Comparison of all SD versions:

Sidenote: I must mention that the first time I saw this film I nearly had a heart attack-at one point in this film: CHOW YUN-FAT ACTUALLY DRIVES MY CAR!!!! (I drive a white 1987 Acura Integra) AHHHHHH!

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Filed under 4 stars, Chow Yun-fat, Film, Film Review, Hong Kong action, Immortal Films, John Woo

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