The 1980s and 1990s were a golden age for Hollywood action movies, back when Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenegger were in their prime. Meanwhile in Asia, you had Hong Kong director John Woo and actor Chow Yun-fat shooting their way into cinematic greatness with action films that would end up influencing directors in the west. The Killer (1989) was not their first collaboration, but it heralded Woo’s arrival with its over the top and at times beautiful violence. Here was an action movie with great acting, depth, and more bullets fired than in most video games.
Like most foreign directors John Woo lost a bit of his spark when he made the move to Hollywood. By the time I was old enough to watch his movies he was making Face/Off, Mission Impossible: II, and Paycheck. Those first two are solid action movies in their own right, but for pure undiluted John Woo you have to go back to the early days, something I had learned through my reading of various movie articles. While browsing at HMV back when I was studying at the University of Sherbrooke I spotted a DVD of The Killer released through the Dragon Dynasty label and I decided to add it to my ever–growing movie collection. Upon first viewing I found the dubbed version made for some rather cheesy dialogue, however I simply have to go for the pun here: the action will blew me away.
There are many movies about assassins going for the mythical one-last-job, but the hitman in The Killer is doing it as a way to wash away one of his sins. During a shooting at a Hong Kong nightclub Ah Jong (Chow Yun-fat) accidentally damages the eyes of a young singer named Jennie (Sally Yeng). Filling a bunch of gangsters with lead is all part of the job, but blinding an innocent woman with a muzzle flash that is something he cannot live it. Since Jenny of course can’t identify him, he befriends her and learns an expensive operation might restore her eyesight. He accepts a job from his bosses in organized crime, while making it clear he is thinking about retirement in the hopes he can walk away in the sunset with a pile of cash big enough to pay for Jennie’s operation.
Of course retiring from a life of killing is not as easy as announcing it to human resources and getting a gold watch. Crime boss Hay Wong Hoi (Shing Fiu-on) double crosses Ah Jong and tries to have him killed. Meanwhile the police are beginning to close in with detective Li Ying (Danny Lee) becoming very interested in Ah Jong’s actions. At first he believes he is just hunting down a very skilled assassin, but to his surprise he is chasing a very skilled assassin who takes the risk of helping a child who has been hit by a stray bullet.
As the cop and the killer cross paths, they begin to respect each other for their sense of morality and honour. In fact in the Hong Kong crime world honour seems to be a rare and appreciated commodity. Fung Sei (Chu Kong), Ah Jong’s friend and contact with the mob is given the task of killing his friend. It is a duty he has to carry out, but he really likes his friend and finds his boss is the one who has no honour.
Everything comes crashing down during a climactic shootout that features all of the John Woo trademarks: white doves symbolizing peace, a church setting, a Mexican standoff, and a ballet of bullets. Woo manages to have his cake and eat it too by shooting this violence beautifully, but also showing violence has consequences. It is incredibly fun to see the killer at work, but you wouldn’t want to do what he does for a living or be in his crosshairs.