The Killer is one of the most passionate and exhilarating gangster movies ever made. Written and directed by Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo, the film is the propulsive account of a super-cool Hong Kong hitman's final assignment, after he seals his own fate with an unexpected spasm of remorse. Borrowing inspiration from doom-laden French crime movies like Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai and ancient Chinese chronicles of patriotic assassins, the film is a passionate cinematic upheaval.

To some aesthetic puritans, John Woo's crime movies pile on a bit too much of everything: they are too violent, too melodramatic, altogether too emotionally unself-conscious. But in fact, Woo's gangster films are fascinating precisely because they are such multifaceted hybrids. They refract familiar Western pop cultural elements through an Eastern lens, and the most debased conventions come back looking fresh, reimagined, "made strange."

While The Killer is aggressively violent, there is an undercurrent of pure sensuous enjoyment in the images of death by gunfire, as scores of perforated mobsters expire in languorous slow motion. "Life's cheap," a cop in the movie suggests. "It only takes one bullet." But in practice, it always takes about a dozen geysering bullet hits to kill anybody here, as grim Triads in mirrored shades and duster overcoats blaze away with high-tech weaponry.

Despite his sanguinary reputation, John Woo wasn't born as a filmmaker with a 9mm Beretta in his hand. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s he was an increasingly frustrated comedy director. In 1986 his first gunplay film, the disarmingly romantic and heartfelt A Better Tomorrow, became the biggest box-office hit in Hong Kong movie history, and its gifted leading man, Chow Yun-fat, became Hong Kong's top box-office attraction. Over the next few years, hundreds of Better Tomorrow carbon copies were cranked out, mob movies with English titles like Brotherhood, Born Brothers, Sworn Brothers, and even Flaming Brothers.

The Killer appeared in 1989, summing up, and topping, the entire gangster-gunplay cycle. The plot is ripeness itself: A warbling torch singer named Jenny (Sally Yeh) is accidentally blinded during a slaying in a night club, and Chow's character, a world-weary ace assassin (he is renamed "John" in the English subtitles) drags himself out of retirement to take on a final assignment so that he can buy her a new set of corneas.

The blinded singer and the killer develop a wan affection for each other, but the most intense relationship by far is the brotherhood that develops between the killer and the idealistic cop (Danny Lee) who has sworn to bring him down. Although a relatively conventional strong-and-silent action hero, Lee brings an unusual depth of feeling to the role. Empathizing with John's yearning for a better life, the upright policeman recognizes himself in the killer. When the cop elects to set his worldly duty aside temporarily to stand shoulder to shoulder with his new soul brother against the armies of the night, John can only shake his head over the irony of it all: "The only person who really knows me turns out to be a cop!"

Many of the outsized gestures in Woo's films, the unrestrained bold strokes of emotion and melodrama, are a tough sell to fans of American-style action films, which nowadays are as coolly brutal as possible. But if Sam Peckinpah's most characteristic sequences are blood ballets, then surely Woo's are Chinese blood operas. The interludes of rapturous slaughter are like arias, releasing the tension that has been accumulating in the "recitative" passages of dialog. John Woo takes violence out of the realm of shock and spectacle and turns it back into a tragically self-defeating human activity, committed by fully fleshed out characters for reasons that make sense -- at least to them.

John Woo's clearest explication of his tough-minded world view may be his harrowing epic of the Vietnam war, Bullet in the Head. But even his early swordplay picture, Last Hurrah for Chivalry, is set in a corrupt medieval Chinese milieu in which absolutely everything has a price tag. "But I paid 1,000 taels of gold for her!" gasps a rich landlord, after being skewered by his demure new bride, a former prostitute. "Yes," sneers his enemy, "but I paid her 2,000 taels for killing you. Once a whore, always a whore."

The Killer is about two men who become friends because they both want to stop being whores, to live lives that don't constantly grate against their sensibilities and their values. While the movie suggests that this may not be possible anymore, at least not for these two, the attempt itself is portrayed with great respect. Finally, in the world according to John Woo, everyone you meet is potentially either your assassin or your best friend - if not both. -- David Chute

It is possible that the Hong Kong gangster-gunplay film cycle would never have taken off at all, especially with the Hong Kong audience, had it not been for Chow Yun-fat. Chow embodies John Woo's romantic conception of heroism with so much flair that he has become an icon, worshiped by sullen young Hong Kong males who copy his clothes, his shades, and his mannerisms.

Chow Yun-fat is an incongruous object of adoration becuase he's a populist entertainer, not a self-styled pop aristocrat like many American stars. In interviews he stresses the modesty of his birth in an island village, his impoverished childhood, his early blue collar employment as a cab driver and hotel porter, and supporting his widowed mother and four siblings. At 17, in 1973, Chow won a spot in the free show biz training program offered by a Hong Kong television network. After a few years spent playing smaller roles, he became an idol in TV serials like Hotel and Shanghai Bund. His feature caree perked along in second gear until 1986, when A Better Tomorrow kicked him into the stratosphere.

All the really irreplaceable movie star personae, like the greatest emblematic characters in novels, are just a bit more vividly individual than the rest of us. They are sometimes called "axioms of the cinema" because they can not be defined by comparision; they are th basis of comparison. This is a fancy way of saying that the breadth of Chow's appeal has no exact equivalent in this country. No American movie star has ever been equally popular as a clown, a lover, and a fighter, all at th same time -- and sometimes all in the same movie.

At 38, Chow Yun-fat has made literally hundreds of films, 12 in 1988 alone. He seems to have tried every kind of role at least once. He pranced around in drag in the hambone sex farce Eighth Happiness, fired a rocket launcher at a giant flying jungle skeleton in the gross-out horror show The Seventh Curse, and pined handsomely in the love-and-reincarnation melodrama Dream Lovers. He has also turned in delicate, naturalistic portarayals in some of Hong Kong's rare art movies: Ann Hui's The Story of Woo Viet, Mabel Chueng's An Autumn's Tale, Stanley Kwan's Love Unto Waste, and Alex Law's Now You See Love, Now You Don't.

The John Woo gunplay films, as exemplified by The Killer, gain much of their power form the grounded emotional reality Chow Yun-fat confers upon their heroes. Even in his most stylized roles, this wonderful actor gives us a sense of a complete man and a lifetime of experience. His soulfulness adds a fine grain of detail to the broadest gestures of melodrame and slapstick farce. Without the anchor of his down-to-earth personality, these dazzling exercises in principled incaution might float off into the ozone.

--David Chute


John: Chow Yun-Fat
Inspector Li: Danny Lee
Jenny: Sally Yeh
Sidney Fung: Chu Kong
Sgt. Randy Chang: Kenneth Tsang
Johnny Weng: Shing Fui-on
Tony Weng: Ip Wing-cho
Frank: Yee Fan-wai
Wong Tong: Wong Kwong-leung
Chief Inspector Tu: Barry Wong
Inspector Chan:Parkman Wong


Director: John Woo
Producer: Tsui Hark
Director of photography: Wong Wing-Heng and Peter Pao
Editor: Fan Kung Ming
Art director: Luk Man Wah
Music: Lowell Lo

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