The Killer is one of the most passionate and exhilarating gangster movies ever made. Written and directed by Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo, the film is the propulsive account of a super-cool Hong Kong hitman’s final assignment, after he seals his own fate with an unexpected spasm of remorse. Borrowing inspiration from doom-laden French crime movies like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï and ancient Chinese chronicles of patriotic assassins, the film is a passionate cinematic upheaval.
To some aesthetic puritans, John Woo’s crime movies pile on a bit too much of everything: They are too violent, too melodramatic, altogether too emotionally unselfconscious. But in fact, Woo’s gangster films are fascinating precisely because they are such multifaceted hybrids. They refract familiar Western pop cultural elements through an Eastern lens, and the most debased conventions come back looking fresh, reimagined, “made strange.”
While The Killer is aggressively violent, there is an undercurrent of pure sensuous enjoyment in the images of death by gunfire, as scores of perforated mobsters expire in languorous slow motion. “Life’s cheap,” a cop in the movie suggests. “It only takes one bullet.” But in practice, it always takes about a dozen geysering bullet hits to kill anybody here, as grim Triads in mirrored shades and duster overcoats blaze away with high-tech weaponry.
Despite his sanguinary reputation, John Woo wasn’t born as a filmmaker with a 9mm Beretta in his hand. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s he was an increasingly frustrated comedy director. In 1986, his first gunplay film, the disarmingly romantic and heartfelt A Better Tomorrow, became the biggest box-office hit in Hong Kong movie history, and its gifted leading man, Chow Yun-fat, became Hong Kong’s top box-office attraction. Over the next few years, hundreds of Better Tomorrow carbon copies were cranked out, mob movies with English titles like Brotherhood, Born Brothers, Sworn Brothers, and even Flaming Brothers.
The Killer appeared in 1989, summing up, and topping, the entire gangster-gunplay cycle. The plot is ripeness itself: A warbling torch singer named Jenny (Sally Yeh) is accidentally blinded during a slaying in a night club, and Chow’s character, a world-weary ace assassin (he is renamed “John” in the English subtitles) drags himself out of retirement to take on a final assignment so that he can buy her a new set of corneas.
The blinded singer and the killer develop a wan affection for each other, but the most intense relationship by far is the brotherhood that develops between the killer and the idealistic cop (Danny Lee) who has sworn to bring him down. Although a relatively conventional strong-and-silent action hero, Lee brings an unusual feeling to the role. Empathizing with John’s yearning for a better life, the upright policeman recognizes himself in the killer. When the cop elects to set his worldly duty aside temporarily to stand shoulder to shoulder with his new soul brother against the armies of the night, John can only shake his head over the irony: “The only person who really knows me turns out to be a cop!”
Many of the outsized gestures in Woo’s films, the unrestrained bold strokes of emotion melodrama, are a tough sell to fans of American-style action films, which nowadays are as coolly brutal as possible. But if Sam Peckinpah’s most characteristic sequences are blood ballets, then surely Woo’s are Chinese blood operas. The interludes of rapturous slaughter are like arias, releasing the tension that has been accumulating in the “recitative” passages of dialog. John Woo takes violence out of the realm of spectacle and turns it back into a tragically self-defeating human activity, committed by fully fleshed-out characters for reasons that make sense—at least to them.
Woo’s clearest explication of his tough-minded world view may be his harrowing epic of the Vietnam War, Bullet in the Head. But even his early swordplay picture, Last Hurrah for Chivalry, is set in a corrupt medieval Chinese milieu in which absolutely everything has a price tag. “But I paid 1,000 taels of gold for her!” gasps a rich landlord, after being skewered by his demure new bride, a former prostitute. “Yes,” sneers his enemy, “but I paid her 2,000 taels for killing you. Once a whore, always a whore.”
The Killer is about two men who become friends because they both want to stop being whores, to live lives that don’t constantly grate against their sensibilities and their values. While the movie suggests that this may not be possible anymore, at least not for these two, the attempt itself is portrayed with great respect. Finally, in the world according to John Woo, everyone you meet is potentially either your assassin or your best friend?.?.?.?if not both.
David Chute is a Los Angeles-based writer with a special interest in Asian popular culture.