I watched Face/Off for the millionth time recently, and after watching and loving Hard Boiled not too long ago I’ve been on an action movie (specifically John Woo) kick ever since.
The Killer is another one of John Woo’s Hong Kong action flicks, only released three years prior to Hard Boiled. Starring the infinitely cool Chow Yun-Fat as Ah Jong, the titular killer who falls in love with Jennie (Sally Yeh), a lounge singer whom he blinded by accident while performing a hit for the Triads. After another hit which goes awry, Jong pops up on Detective Ying’s (Danny Lee) radar.
When Ah Jong performs a final hit for an aspiring Triad boss so he can get the money needed to cure Jennie’s blindness, Ying pursues the mysterious assassin, becoming more and more obsessed with him. After the hit, Jong finds the men who sent him out are looking to terminate him, and now he must evade pursuit from both the police and his employers. Tensions rise between the police and the Triads, and many, many, many bullets are exchanged along the way.
The Killer is often cited as one of John Woo’s best movies alongside 1992’s Hard Boiled and while the latter is usually considered one of the greatest action movies of all time, The Killer is considered Woo’s best overall film. As much as I love Hard Boiled, I’m inclined to agree that The Killer is the more complete and cohesive effort. The Killer is a great action flick, sure, but it also turns out to be a solid character piece that explores some interesting themes among all the bloodshed.
The first thing you’ll notice when watching this movie is that Chow Yun-Fat’s character of Ah Jong (if that even is his real name) is a pretty complex one. He’s a ruthless, cold-blooded killer, but he’s got a strict sense of honor and an air of kindness about him. Once we discover that he’s willing to escape the clutches of the Triads just to help a poor blind woman that he’s fallen in love with, we know we aren’t dealing with your average Agent 47. In a tense shootout the goes out of his way to help a child that was injured in the crossfire, even though it could compromise his own freedom and survival. Even in the more dramatic scenes do we see Jong whimsically playing the harmonica, a brief look into the side of an assassin we rarely see. It’s not much, but it doesn’t have to be. The trope of the hyper-skilled deigod-like hitman has been established so well, that just seeing the character do something as mundane as improvising music breaks the mold.
The Killer offers a look into an assassin’s life that I’ve only seen in films like In Bruges or Léon: The Professional. Both those movies and The Killer offer something in terms of drama and action, and while the former two favor quips and monologues over knives and bullets, The Killer looks at the other side of the spectrum of that particular blend of genres. The moments when Jong and Ying are together but not immediately at each other’s throats are also a nice breath of fresh air in between all the gunfights and car chases. The two of them divulge details about their lives and their philosophies, and while Woo is probably one of the more ham-fisted writers in movie history, it is interesting to see two characters who are bound by an almost identical moral code and line of work talk about how something as arbitrary and non-tangible as the law is the only thing that differentiates them. It’s pretty on the nose and obtuse, but it’s endearing only in the way that a foreign action film from the ’80s can be. It’s not high art, but it works.
Now remember, this is a John Woo movie. An killer with a heart of gold and dramatic dialogue is only part of the equation here. The action in The Killer it top notch as expected. While not as excessive and over the top as Hard Boiled, the gunfights in The Killer are still exciting and intense. The action scenes (barring the amazing, dove-filled, balls out final church shootout) are quick, and brutal, showcasing Ah Jong’s ruthless, almost John Wick-like efficiency when it comes to dishing out the pain to the bad guys. Typically, Jong deals in the “one shot, one kill” methodology, and in scenes like the ambush in Jong’s own apartment, we can really see how well he can command a fight. He’s a trained and experienced killer, and it shows.
Woo also handles the tension building before the action scenes almost as well as the action itself. The most obvious example I’m going to pull from here is the standoff between Jong and Detective Ying in Jennie’s apartment. Ying breaks into Jennie’s place and immediately gets into a Mexican standoff with Jong. Jennie, who is visually impaired but not completely blind walks in on the two of them, and they immediately pretend to be old friends and rivals who haven’t seen each other in a long time. While the dialogue here is a little more on the nose than usual, the way Jong and Ying move around the apartment and each other, trying not to let Jennie in on the fact that they are brandishing guns while also never letting an opportunity rise for their opponent to take advantage of. It’s simple and small scale, but because we care about all the characters in the scene, it builds ridiculous amounts of tension from the first frame.
The more I think about it, the more I like this movie. The Killer is definitely a better film than Hard Boiled, with well developed characters that the audience can really get to know and understand and great dramatic tension throughout. That being said, at the end of the day I do prefer Hard Boiled because of how insane the action is throughout the whole film. The Killer has some really impressive action scenes too, and the church shootout is 100% John Woo with tons of slo-mo, people flying through the air firing guns, and doves erupting across the screen, it lacks the technical punch that something like the hospital shootout in Hard Boiled packs. Being someone who really digs the technical and production side of movies, I’ve got to give the point to the 1992 action masterpiece. The Killer is still a phenomenal movie and definitely worth anybody’s time. I’d argue it’s one of the more accessible of Woo’s films that I’ve seen, so if you’re looking to get into classic Asian action cinema, The Killer is a great place to start.