Wednesday, April 7, 2010

THE KILLER (1989) - 5/5 stars

Release: 1989
Director: John Woo
Writer: John Woo
Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Kong Chu, Kenneth Tsang, Fui-On Shing, Wing-Cho Yip, Fan Wei Yee, Barry Wong, Parkman Wong
Soundtrack: Lowell Lo
Claim to fame: perhaps John Woo's most famous and influential film; one of the standouts of the heroic bloodshed genre; and a botched blu-ray release from Dragon Dynasty
Rating: 5/5 stars

"The Killer" will never have the emotional resonance or genuine pathos that it had for me at 17. But that's life, right? As an angst-ridden high school outsider, this film's ridiculously high body count and doomed love story hit me like a revelation.

John Woo truly created his own little pocket universe here: a place where honorable assassins and rogue cops could leak gallons of blood and still go on fighting, and the most meaningful sign of friendship was tossing your buddy an ammo clip in the midst of battle.


A friendship tested by bulletfire

Rewatching the film years later, I can realize that for every four shots of action that are masterfully composed, there's one or two that feel sloppily put together (it's almost like these bad guys love running right towards our heroes just to get shot); and the central love story of the film relies heavily on Hong Kong movie cliches, like Cantopop songs playing over the soundtrack just as tragedy strikes.

I had to laugh when the Chow Yun Fat visits the lounge-singing object of affections and she asks, "Want to listen to some music?" and then proceeds to play one of her own songs over her apartment stereo.


Aw, $#%*& yeah

But arguably none of this takes away from the power of "The Killer." It's one of these films, like "Scarface," that is utterly steeped in the style of its era - the 80's. You can say that makes it dated, or choose to embrace its neon lighting, excessive (but still expert) use of slow motion, frequent religious symbolism, and nihilistic suckerpunch of an ending.

I mean, this movie is part of a genre that's been nicknamed "heroic bloodshed" and "pistol opera," and for good reason. Every emotion is at its most extreme, whether it's love or sorrow, and concepts like brotherhood and honor are treated as codes to live and die by. The over the top nature of the entire film, and John Woo's filmmaking style in general, only help to emphasize the plot's underlying themes.


Rest assured, Chow Yun Fat is filmed from every conceivable angle

while holding a weapon in this movie

There are certain people in cinema history that were just born to do things. Fred Astaire was born to dance, Bruce Lee was born to practice martial arts, and Chow Yun Fat was born to dual wield pistols and fire away like there was no tomorrow.

Chow is amazing here: his expression is constantly shifting between icy, straight-faced cool and completely tormented. He's always dressed to the nines and moves with a balletic grace as he mows down wave after wave of bad guys with whatever weapon is on hand.


Chow Yun Fat: born to kill

Danny Lee is in similarly fine form; in fact, this is probably his greatest hour as an actor. The man played a cop so many times during his career that the Hong Kong Police Force actually gave him an honorary award.

He's the perfect foil for Chow Yun Fat's assassin because Lee is utterly committed to his job, which involves catching hitmen like Fat, but ultimately his own personal sense of justice means that he has to side with Fat's crusade.


You engage in Mexican stand-offs with your friends now and then, don't you?

Both men give themselves over to loftier ideals - like friendship, honor - and are willing to sacrifice their very lives for them, which leads to the final showdown in a Catholic church. Once a statue of the Virgin Mary is exploded by the villain's shotgun blast, it becomes clear that the characters no longer have any chance at redemption.

It's then that their battle becomes not about getting out alive and starting a new life, but making sure you take down the bad guys before you spit out your last breath.


A symbolic turning point in the film (and NO, we're not gonna

criticize it for being too obvious or over the top, just shut up,

it's John-friggin'-Woo!)

While "Hard Boiled" may feature more outstanding, technically proficient action, it has none of the heart of "The Killer." This film is the complete, unfiltered creative expression of John Woo - the man's many passions and vast cinematic abilities are plastered all over the screen during every minute of the movie's runtime. Chances are you'll either love it or find it to be totally ridiculous.

Sure, the English translation on the subtitles certainly leaves something to be desired. But if you've never seen a movie where the good guys stand back to back, reloading their guns while their clothes are soaked through with their own blood and the enemy is pouring in from all sides, then "The Killer" might just make am impact on you like it did for me many years ago…and you might wonder if Hollywood has completely forgotten - or ever really knew - about that kind of old-fashioned heroism.


I swear, guys, I'm not's just something in my eye...sniff.

POST-NOTE: Not to end the review on a downer note, but Dragon Dynasty (the new Asian film label from the Weinstein Brothers) really botched the blu-ray release of "The Killer." The disc is only a 1080i encode and it hardly looks better than an upscaled DVD. The picture is soft and only a few select shots have the level of detail you'd expect from high-definition.

Even worse, the soundtrack sounds totally flat and mono. I realize that the film is old but for 1989 it shouldn't look or sound THIS bad. If you already own this film on DVD then there's no reason to upgrade to the blu-ray because it'd most likely be more of a downgrade. We'll have to keep waiting for the definitive version of this film to hit the hi-def format.


Chow and Danny are left smugly unimpressed by Dragon Dynasty's treatment

of their most excellent action movie

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