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

Mission: Impossible II


Mission: Impossible II

Tom Cruise knows how to define cool instead of being defined by it.

(2000) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton, Anthony Hopkins, Ving Rhames, Richard Roxburgh, John Polson, Brendan Gleeson, Rade Serbedzija, William Mapother, Dominic Purcell, Matthew Wilkinson, Alison Araya. Directed by John Woo

 

It sounds like an unbeatable combo: Tom Cruise, whose revival of the revered television franchise was a big hit; terrific gadgets; and John Woo, who with apologies to Jan de Bont, Michael Bay and John McTiernan, is the best action director on the planet. Should you decide to accept it? Heck, yeah!

The plot is a bit of a lulu. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, who is evidently back in the IMF after the recent unpleasantness is called upon to recruit Nyah (Newton), a beautiful thief to go after Chimera,a creation of an ex-Soviet molecular biologist which has been ripped off by a renegade IMF agent (Scott) who, as it happens, has a previous relationship with the thief and a grudge against Hunt.

Sounds simple enough but let’s face it, this isn’t Mission Simple it’s Mission Impossible right?. Ambrose, the renegade agent, is at least nearly as competent as Hunt and he has no compunction about using deadly force as does Hunt in this iteration. Nyah is the wild card whose allegiance is clearly to herself and whose motivations are murky at best.

Few directors are able to capture the poetry of movement as well as Woo, and the action scenes reflect that aesthetic. Woo stages some incredible action scenes, beginning with a mountain-climbing scene and building to a climactic motorcycle chase and fight. They are marvelously staged and worth every penny that you paid to rent or buy whichever version of it you have in your grubby little hands.

Now, the down side. Much less energy is put into the non-action scenes, and therefore some of the expository scenes drag. Hunt falls in love with the thief too quickly and for no apparent reason other than to make a plot complication the audience could do without. The writers also rely too much on the hoary plot device of disguising the actors as other actors. It seems like every ten minutes, someone is pulling off latex to reveal Hunt’s face or Ambrose’s face. Yes, we get that not everything is as it seems, guys. This is just pure laziness on the writers’ part, a device meant to move the plot along without really putting too much thought into it.

Cruise is surrounded by a capable cast, which is a good thing because he spends most of the movie trying to be emotionless (which translates onscreen as “wooden”). Scott makes a first-rate villain and for my money at the time seemed poised for stardom which to this point has never arrived. Newton is lustrous as the bad girl gone good (more or less) but does little more than point smoldering looks in Cruise’s general direction. Rhames returns from the first movie, but outside of one scene is given little to do beyond monitoring the computer and warning Hunt to be careful. Hopkins has a cameo as the acerbic head of the IMF; we could have done with more of him and less of the latex.

Still, given all the faults of the movie, it’s still a satisfying summer action thriller, full of great stunts, terrific gadgets and things that go boom. Even if you’re at home on a cold winter’s night, there’s nothing better than a big summer movie to take your mind off of things for two hours. This isn’t the best movie in the franchise and it’s a bit disappointing that Woo couldn’t make a better film, but the action sequences alone are worth checking this bad boy out.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific action sequences. Hopkins is a treasure and Scott not a bad villain at all.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cruise surprisingly wooden here. Too much latex. Newton not the ideal leading lady.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of sexuality and a whole lot of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first movie Metallica ever agreed to write a song for.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a music video of the aforementioned Metallica song, a couple of tributes to Cruise which seem oddly out of place here and an interesting look at the stunts with the film’s stunt co-ordinator.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $546.4M on a $125M prodution budget; the movie was a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Quantum of Solace

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Big Year

Red Cliff


Red Cliff

A scene of majesty and dignity from Red Cliff as Lin Chiling approaches Zhang Fengyi's headquarters.

(Magnet) Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Zhang Fenyi, Lin Chiling, Shido Nakamura, You Yong, Ba Sen Zha Bu, Hou Yong, Philip Hersh (voice), Jiang Tong, Song Jia, Tong Dawei. Directed by John Woo

Chinese history is a rich and varied one, which sadly remains largely unknown in the West. One of the great events in the history of China is the Battle of Red Cliff, which took place in 209 AD during the Han Dynasty.

Cao Cao (Fenyi) is the ruthless and ambitious Prime Minister of the Han Dynasty. He has quelled rebel warlords in Northern China, successfully reuniting territory that had been fractured under years of ineffectual rule. He is the de facto ruler of China; even the Emperor quails before him. He has turned his sights to the South and two warlords who he feels are a threat to his agenda – the usurpation of the thrown for himself.

Liu Bei (Yu Yong) has been spectacularly unsuccessful as a warlord, losing battle after battle. Sun Quan is an ambitious but inexperienced ruler whose advisors have constantly counseled against battle, leading to a wide perception that Sun Quan is a coward. Cao Cao is unimpressed with either; he snorts derisively “When a loser joins forces with a coward, what can be accomplished?” at the thought of the alliance between the two squabbling Southerners.

In truth, the alliance between the two falls into his plans perfectly, giving him the excuse to invade the South. In a skirmish against Liu Bei, Liu Bei’s army is decimated, although in fairness he leaves them on the battlefield long enough to protect the civilian population of the area to flee, at the cost of his wife who dies during the conflict. Bei, knowing he cannot stand against the vast army of Cao Cao (which is said to number over 800,000) alone, sends his military strategist Zhuge Liang (Kaneshiro) to entreat Sun Quan to join forces. As expected, Sun Quan’s ministers are advising him to surrender. Liang however decides on a different route of persuasion; he wins the heart and mind of Zhou Yu (Leung), the mightiest warrior in the South and something of a mentor to Sun Quan. Zhou Yu is also married to Xiao Qiao (Chiling), a renowned beauty whom Cao Cao has had a crush on for many years.

Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu bond over a mutual love of music and the alliance is joined. The two armies encamp at a place called Red Cliff near the Yangtze River. In the meantime, Cao Cao’s flotilla approaches. Destiny awaits the victor and China one way or another will never be the same.

Director John Woo made his reputation directing action films in Hong Kong back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s before departing for a celebrated career in Hollywood, which includes such titles as Mission: Impossible II, Face Off and Broken Arrow. He has rarely attempted period dramas before and certainly none on this scale, but he pulls it off like he’s channeling Cecil B. deMille. The most expensive movie produced in Asia to date, it has been a monster hit in China, released a la Kill Bill in two parts.

The battle sequences are absolutely amazing. Soldiers march in formations with shields interlocked to protect from arrows which rain down from the sky in a downpour of death. Fire is used in spectacular fashion, rolling across ships and men in waves. Visually, this is eye candy of the highest order.

The friendship of Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang are at the center of the story and Kaneshiro and Leung have chemistry that works – call it “bromistry” if you like. They seem to genuinely like each other and that shows onscreen. Chiling makes a marvelous Helen of Troy sort, beautiful, alluring and graceful – I can see where Cao Cao might invade for her sake (as is implied).

Western audiences may have difficulty keeping all the characters straight – there are a whole lot of them and their names can be similar. Woo says he based the movie on the more historically accurate “Records of Three Kingdoms” (a document written in the 3rd century chronicling events beginning with the battle) rather than the popular 14th century Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” which is more familiar to the Chinese people and helped make the battle a major part of Chinese folklore, not unlike how Homer’s “Odyssey” did the same for the siege of Troy in the West.

The Western release was culled down from nearly four and a half hours of the two Chinese volumes into a two and a half hour epic. I started to get restless with about 20 minutes to go in the movie; it is a little long trying to set the stage for the events but quite frankly once it gets into the battle scenes (which are wall to wall starting with the second act), the movie hums along at a blistering pace.

Those who miss movies like Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia will be sated with this. Beautifully shot with the Chinese eye for gracefulness and color, the movie appeals on a great many levels. There are some very humorous sequences (such as Zhuge Liang’s ingenious method of acquiring arrows) and some romantic ones between Zhou Yu and Xiao Qiao. Still, this is the kind of movie that will thrill you even if you have a distaste for subtitles.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of epic that is rarely made these days. The battle sequences are nothing short of astonishing and reason enough to see the movie by themselves. Leung and Kaneshiro make appealing leads.

REASONS TO STAY: It can be difficult to tell one character apart from another given Western unfamiliarity with Chinese names and the fairly large set of major characters. The movie is about 20 minutes too long.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of battlefield bloodiness.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Chinese Army lent over 100,000 soldiers to work as extras in the battle scenes.

HOME OR THEATER: While this might be hard to find in theaters, do seek it out – given the epic scale it deserves the presentation that a big screen affords.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Invictus

New Releases for the Week of December 11, 2009


Invictus

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon hope they'll be hoisting Oscars come February.

INVICTUS

(Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones, Adjoa Andoh, Marguerite Wheatley. Directed by Clint Eastwood

After the election of Nelson Mandela, the newly elected President of South Africa faced a Herculean task of reuniting a country divided upon racial lines for so long. He recognized the bonding power and sport and picked the national rugby team as a means of bringing both black and white together. This true story is the latest Oscar contender for director Clint Eastwood.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for brief strong language)

The Princess and the Frog

(Disney) Featuring the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Terrence Howard, John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey. The latest animated film from Disney is a reworking of the fairy tale that has a frog that is a prince. Set in turn of the century New Orleans, this is the first Disney film to feature an African-American princess and features music from Oscar-winning composer Randy Newman.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: G

Red Cliff

(Magnet) Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei. Acclaimed action John Woo returns to his homeland for his first film there in more than a decade, taking on an epic historic battle nearly two thousand years ago that shaped the history of China and would mark the end of the Han Dynasty. More than a million soldiers took part in the battle and Woo’s recreation of it would be the most expensive film ever made in Asia – and also the most popular.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for sequences of epic warfare)

Up in the Air

(Paramount) George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman, Anna Kendrick. In this new film by the director of Juno and Thank You for Smoking, Clooney portrays a corporate hatchet man, a consultant hired by big companies to inform employees they’ve been let go. He loves his life on the road and detests being home but changes and cutbacks at his firm may force him to return to home permanently just as he is approaching a frequent flyer milestone. This will be opening wide on Christmas Day but is opening on a limited basis in select theaters this week.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)