The Killer (1989) (Dip huet seung hung)

A Hong Kong standoff.

A Hong Kong standoff.

(1989) Crime Drama (Circle) Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Kong Chu, Kenneth Tsang, Fui-On Shing, Wing-Cho Yip, Fan Wei Yee, Barry Wong, Parkman Wong, Siu-Hung Ng, Yamson Domingo, Siu Hung Ngan, Kwong Leung Wong, Simon Broad (voice), Dion Lam, Chung Lin, Hung Lu, Pierre Tremblay (voice), Hsiang Lin Yin  Directed by John Woo

There are those who are big fans of Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s who will tell you that maybe the seminal film of that era and that place is John Woo’s The Killer. At the time it was hailed by the Western press as a masterpiece even though it surprisingly didn’t do well at the box office at the time as it was released shortly after the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Since then it has taken its rightful place as one of the finest films ever to be produced in Hong Kong.

Ah Jong (Fat) is a hitman for the Hong Kong triads. However, he is getting out of the business, having lost the taste for it and plans to retire after one last job. It goes off pretty well but during the fracas, a pretty nightclub singer named Jenny (Yeh) is injured by the muzzle flash from Ah Jong’s gun when his gun goes off next to her eyes. She will need an expensive corneal transplant or will eventually lose her sight completely.

Ah Jong feels a certain amount of guilt over the incident and begins hanging out at the nightclub to hear the singer, whose sight has become so poor that she doesn’t recognize him. He witnesses an attempted mugging on the singer and drives off the bandits. Afterwards, he escorts her home and eventually the two begin to fall in love. Ah Jong resolves to get her the transplant to save her sight and in order to do so, he contacts his Triad handler Fung Sei (Kong Chu) to set up one last hit, the proceeds for which should be more than enough to pay for Jenny’s operation.

At the Hong Kong dragon boat celebration he assassinates an industrialist. However, he is observed by maverick Hong Kong police detective Li Ying (Lee), who along with his partner Tsang Yeh (Tsang) begin closing in on the assassin. The Triad boss, the ruthless Hay Wong Hoi (Shing) refuses to pay Ah Jong what he owes him and puts out a hit on his former employee. Not a smart idea. Ah Jong isn’t about to go down quietly and together with Fung Sei determine to take what is his. Li becomes intrigued with the assassin when he rushed a child, hit by incidental gunfire during the shootout, to a hospital but by doing so gets caught in the middle of the war between Ah Jong and the Triad. One thing is certain; bullets are going to fly.

The violence here is stylish, influenced by such American auteurs as Scorsese and Peckinpah. The final shootout takes place in a church that is in the process of being renovated; noted cinematographer Peter Pau and his co-cinematographer Wing-Hang Wong use doves, a Woo trademark (although this was the first film he would use them in) with a gauzy focus to make the setting somewhat ethereal; a purgatory in which the protagonists will go either to heaven or to hell.

Chow Yun Fat is one of the most charismatic and able actors to ever come out of Asia. although as of late he hasn’t appeared in many films that have made it to the States he has continued to be one of the most in-demand actors in the East. He demonstrates his screen presence here, using his athleticism to good advantage particularly in the gun battles.

The relationship between Ah Jong and Detective Li is crucial to the film’s success and the relationship goes from antagonists to grudging respect to close friends in a short time. That might seem laughable to Western audiences but it feels organic. I will admit that seeing the film a second time 25 years after originally seeing it during its first American theatrical run that the film doesn’t hold up as well as I thought it might; some of the dialogue comes off as clunky and there is a cheesy factor that I don’t remember from my first viewing, when I was extremely impressed and became a lifelong devotee to Hong Kong-produced films ever since. Woo himself had to make some compromises due to run-ins with his producer, the legendary Tsui Hark. Like Woo, Hark is a man of strong opinions and the two butted heads over things like the soundtrack. Woo wanted Jenny to be a singer of sultry jazz songs but Hark didn’t think Asian audiences would like that and insisted that she sing Chinese pop songs. For the record, Woo was right.

The Killer has been a tremendous influence on action films in general; echoes of various scenes can be seen in just about every action film made since, influencing directors like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, the Wachowski’s, Luc Besson and Antoine Fuqua. Sure, there are some cultural aspects that may seem foreign to American audiences but the action sequences by themselves are worthy of study, particularly for the serious aficionado of action movies. While I left my more recent viewing less impressed than I had been after my first, I had to remind myself that many of the sequences have been so imitated that they seem less incredible now than when I first saw it, when I have to say without reservation that I hadn’t seen anything like this before. In many ways, it still can be said about this movie – it is an amazing piece of filmmaking and anyone who seriously loves movies should make the effort to see this film at some point; it is required viewing for any understanding of action movies and non-American cinema.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully choreographed action. Fine performance by Chow Yun Fat. Beautiful cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated. Some of the dialogue is a bit bombastic.
FAMILY VALUES: An incredible amount of violence, mostly bloodless although there are a couple of disturbing images. There’s also a little bit of foul language and a whole lot of smoking going on.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The subtitles were so badly translated during the first American theatrical run that the film was mistakenly promoted as a comedy..
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Dragon Dynasty DVD/Blu-Ray version includes a location guide. Surprisingly, the now out-of-print Criterion Collection edition contained no notable extras.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.4M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental and streaming)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Departed
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Leatherheads

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