Director: John Woo
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh
Although I knew this would be a fundamentally different film, I was a little hesitant about popping in the DVD for The Killer based on the complete ridiculous mess that was Once Upon a Time in China, which I had watched only a few days previously. I kept on repeating to myself, “different director, different setting, different movie.” I really needn’t have felt even the slightest tinge of worry. While Once Upon a Time in China has great fight sequences held together with inane and ludicrous “plot points,” The Killer is a very coherent and engaging shoot-‘em-up bloodbath – just what one would expect from John Woo.
A killer, who goes by Jeffrey in the English subtitles (Chow), is a hired assassin with a conscience. When he accidently blinds nightclub singer Jennie (Yeh) in one of his hits, his guilt drives him to reach out to her to make sure she’s alright. At the same time, determined cop Inspector Li (Lee) starts hunting Jeffrey after he takes out a corrupt businessman Li was guarding. When Jeffrey doesn’t get the agreed upon payment for a hit, he starts gunning for those who hired him, all while Li closes in on him, getting more entangled in Jeffrey’s world.
A great deal of why The Killer succeeds is because of Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee. Both actors are incredibly charismatic; in his very first scene, Chow Yun-Fat got me on his side, even while pulling off a professional hit, through his sheer force of character. He’s a killer with a soul, a sense of right and wrong (ironically enough), and he exudes a soft, caring, artistic nature underneath his cool exterior. When Lee is introduced, it doesn’t take long to establish how awesome he is; he’s intense, brooding, clever, and aggressive, but in an awesomely fantastic way. Furthermore, both actors are playing very interesting and fundamentally likeable characters. Despite the fact that Jeffrey and Inspector Li are technically working against one another – lawman versus assassin – it’s hard to pick sides. They are both so effin’ awesome, so effin’ smart, and so effin’ bad-ass, that I found myself rooting for both of them. I wanted both of them to succeed.
And then, just when I was thinking that I couldn’t decide between them, the movie pulls out one of my husband’s all time favorite tropes: the teaming up of mortal enemies in order to fight off even worse enemies. While my husband probably enjoys that particular story angle more than I do, I like it too, and in the case of this film, it was pitch perfect. Li and Jeffrey even talk about how alike they are, and the film makes this point very clearly. The fact that one is an assassin and the other a cop is a mere technicality. My mother-in-law would call them “twin souls.” Watching them fight off evil nasty crooked criminals together was a thing of joy. Their relationship became so intense that the character of Jennie, love interest for Jeffrey and possibly Li as well, felt far more like a clunky plot device than a real character in the film. I really don’t care about what happens between Jennie and Jeffrey, but I very much care about what happens between Jeffrey and Li. As the 1001 Movies book notes, the direct translation of the movie title is not “The Killer,” but “Bloodshed of Two Heroes.” After watching this film, I strongly agree that this title is far more descriptive of the central relationship of the film, focusing instead on the pair of Li and Jeffrey rather than just Jeffrey himself.
Another part of why I enjoyed this movie as much as I did was the sheer level of bad-assery in this movie. Seriously, it’s off the charts. In the opening hit, Chow Yun-Fat, an actor whom I am slowly realizing I don’t know nearly as well as I thought I did, puts all well-known Western action heroes to shame. He’s so. Damn. Cool. Throughout the film, he just keeps getting cooler and cooler, and more and more badass. And then there’s Danny Lee, who’s all badass too, but on the right side of the law, which in a way makes him even MORE badass. Together, they pull off some crazy bad-ass shit. A favorite sequence of mine involved the two of them meeting each other at Jennie’s home, each holding the other at arm’s length and gunpoint, all while blind Jennie doesn’t realize the two men are in a standoff. The fight scenes are beautifully choreographed bloody gun battles, bathed in red and exploding blood packs which allow our two heroes to show off their preternatural shooting abilities and bullet-dodging prowess. Which, of course, makes them super-badass. It’s easy to see how this film influenced the likes of Quentin Tarantino, with fight scenes full of such ludicrous bloodshed and body counts where even the innocent aren’t spared, all while occasionally cutting to slow motion to showcase the tranquil beauty of a candlelit church and the flapping of a dove. Then, of course, Chow Yun-Fat slides across the floor on his back, double-fisting his guns and shooting about a billion bad guys dead, and we’re right back into the insane action yet again. Like I said: badass.
Although I enjoyed the fight scenes, I do think they are absolutely ridiculous. Chow Yun-Fat is not physically capable of mowing down forty attackers at once while escaping unharmed in real life. I am amused by how all of the bad guys in this movie have automatic assault weapons and our heroes only ever seem to have six-shot pistols, and yet all the automatic assault weapons seem to constantly miss their targets, while the two dudes with the piddling little guns never miss a single damn shot (or never need to reload, either). One or two versus fifty? No problem! Watch our heroes mow down every villain in their way despite the fact that they are massively out-manned, out-gunned, and out-maneuvered. The villains must go to some special school of villainy that teaches them how to consistently miss their targets (this is the same school that the stormtroopers attended as well). Action movies, to me, are totally ludicrous and completely unrealistic. But if all the ridiculousness is done well, I can absolutely still enjoy them! Yeah, it’s not realistic, and yeah, to some extent, it removes me from the film, but magically, I can get past that leap of logic and enjoy the movie. Throwing logic out the window every now and then is good for the movie-viewer’s soul.
Overall, The Killer is a very fun movie with killer fight sequences (ha ha), two awesome badass main characters doing badass shit who I wound up having a bit of a crush on by the end (threeway!!!!) and more dead bodies than you can shake a fist at. More poignant than I was expecting, I am now left wondering why on earth Criterion discontinued its DVD of The Killer.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10