After the literal smoke had cleared from the iconic climax of A Better Tomorrow II, it seemed that action maestro John Woo was poised to become the director he was always destined to be with him hitting peak form with his legendary opus, The Killer.
Using his previous release as a spring board to finally go full Woo, literally everything you associate with the director, every artistic flourish or stylistic extravagance that’s instantly attributed to his works, is present and correct here and in fine form too.
Wildly overblown emotions? Religious iconography? Fluttering doves? Overcomplicated Mexican stand-offs? Honor based bromances? More Slo-Mo than a Zach Snyder marathon? Wild disregard for the safety of an army of Hong Kong stuntmen?
It’s all here and it’s all glorious as one of the finest action movies of all time fuses stunning action with the type of raw, emotional gut punches that would make Pixar green with envy – but then red with blood as it’s then shot full with dozens of holes.
Ah Jong is a hitman undergoing a typical, John Woo-esque, crisis of conscience after his final hit involves him accidently blinding young nightclub singer Jennie when her giant, innocent eyeballs stray too close to one of the professional assassin’s wayward muzzle flashes. Six months pass and Ah Jong, wracked with guilt, has been watching over the progressively more timid girl as her condition rapidly deteriorates, but is forced to intervene directly in her life to prevent her from being attacked by street thugs and before you can say pity party, the two form a romance. Deciding to get back in the hitman game in order to pay for the cornea transplant Jennie desperately needs, Ah Jong is hired to make a high ranking triad boss publicly extinct, but after the hit is performed, two-faced client Wong Hoi arranges to have him killed at the meet up. During the bullet raked chaos, Ah Wong leaves the gunfight to aid a small child wounded in the crossfire and this moving act of heroism from a man who slaughters people like pigs for money is witnessed by maverick cop Li Ying who becomes obsessed with this conflicted killer.
Li, currently in deep shit with his bosses after the spirited way he previously handled a hostage situation left said hostage dead of a heart attack, manages to put numerous threads together and manages to track Ah Jong down through Jennie and hears of their tragic tale.
Moved by their plight but still compelled to follow the letter of the law, Li nevertheless forges a strong bond of honor with the enigmatic killer who now hints that the cornea that Jennie should inherit should be his own. However, Wong Hai isn’t one to let lose threads dangle and so both cop and killer are forced fight side by side in an epic, church-set conflagration that is destined to have tragic repercussions.
Anyone who looks at that insane climax from A Better Tomorrow II and thinks, “you know what, I can do better”, must have cinematic balls of purest titanium which means John Woo must have a harrowing time going through metal detectors in airports because that’s seemingly exactly what he did. You see, compared to entirety of The Killer, the last forty minutes of that previous movie seem like a run up for Woo to achieve arguably his finest film.
The movie is practically sodden with sentiment as wild and chaotic as a total stranger high off their tits at a festival telling you how much they love you, I mean it’s fucking everywhere. From the central, heterosexual love-in between the two morally opposed leads, to Chow Yun Fat’s Ah Jong caring for the perpetually terrified Jennie like a broken bird, to the hitman’s treacherous manager, Feng Sei, who (like everybody else in this film) is consumed with guilt with his wrong doings and is desperate to sacrifice himself to re-affirm his loyalty and the film could have been upended by all the over exaggerated yearning and enigmatic brooding. However, this super deep emotional streak proves to be imperative when it comes to anchoring the majestic displays of violence the movie gifts our senses with as the sheer weight of everyone’s pain actually make everyone’s almost cartoonish attempts to kill each other at any cost make perfect sense. This is an all or nothing movie that wears it’s heart so profoundly on its sleeve it would pump its lifeblood all over you if you tried to shake its hand.
But even though the melodrama is pumped up to the levels of a Catherine Cookson novel, Woo never let’s things get too mawkish and even busts out a couple of scenes that legitimately jerk a tear from the eye by never letting Sally Yeh’s helpless Jennie become annoying. In fact some of the strongest drama comes from her with heartbreaking moments like her realising exactly how bad her condition has gotten after she burns herself on a lit candle or the look of abject horror when she thinks she’s fatal shot Li whole trying to protect Ah Jong from arrest. Yes, women and the visually impaired will no doubt be disgruntled by exactly how helpless she truly is (it’s amazing she can fucking breathe unaided sometimes), but it’s all paid of in that final act that may rank as John Woo’s most cruellest moment by a country mile. With a SPOILER WARNING cocked, locked and ready to rock we see Ah Jong’s pledge to donate his cornea’s to Jennie in the very likely event of his death dashed to pieces when he’s fatally shot in both eyes and further more, when both the blinded couple crawl towards each other so the tormented hitman can expire in her arms – they fucking miss each other and he quietly expires as Jennie crawls off calling his name.
It’s tragically brutal stuff, but Woo’s never been one to let his Hong Kong characters off easily (Ah Song is denied both a happy ending or even a comforting death simply because as a hired murderer – even a nice one – the director’s ethics state that he simply doesn’t deserve one), but as hard as the drama goes, the action goes even harder with the final church showdown acting like a crystallized, perfect moment where Woo’s visuals and themes are given their most perfect moment, right down to an exploding statue of the Virgin Mary giving everyone a genuinely mid-gunfight moment of religious trauma.
Chow Yun Fat is, obviously, magnificent in what is probably his most iconic role (who else could look so effortless cool staging a hit with lightly grayed hair and a Nigel Mansell’s moustache) and rock solid backup, both in acting and shooting, is provided by City Of Fire’s Danny Lee and their chemistry is as potent and genuine as it is legitimately moving.
Astoundingly, Woo took the carnage of The Killer and somehow went bigger with the spectacular Hard Boiled, but while that 1992 epic was bigger and more impressive in almost every respect, it’s The Killer that has the superior heart. Punching you in the chest like a shotgun blast to a bullet proof vest, Woo’s style is fantastically OTT (there’s literally no reason why a gang of thugs would all wear white tracksuits to an ambush, but it doesn’t half look fucking spectacular when they get shot) and yet, among the blazing pistols that seemingly hold an impossible amount of bullets and the sledgehammer dramatics, Woo somehow makes such a full on movie feel almost delicate and tender, even when its blood soaked heroes are machine gunning villains into tapioca in the middle of a blazing church.
This movie doesn’t just move you. It fucking kills.