The Killer (Die xue shuang xiong)
MPAA Rating : Not Rated
Year of Release : 1989
Stars : Chow Yun-Fat (John), Danny Lee (Inspector Li), Sally Yeh (Jennie), Chu Kong (Sydney), Kenneth Tsang (Sgt. Randy Chang), Fui-On Shing (Johnny Weng), Wing Cho Ip (Tony Weng), Fan Wei Yee (Frank), Barry Wong (Chief Inspector Tu), Parkman Wong (Inspector Chan)
It is not without a truckload of irony that the two men--one a discontented assassin, the other a determined cop--find out for the first time that they have something in common while pointing guns at each other's heads. It is also not without similar amounts of irony that these two men, who stand on opposite sides of the law, eventually discover they are more like each other than anyone else, and end up fighting side-by-side against a common enemy.
Of course, because this takes place in the world of Hong Kong action auteur John Woo, probably the most able choreographer of blood-soaked, slow-motion shoot-outs since Sam Peckinpah, the irony is not lost in the plausibility that these characters could be so similar. Like Peckinpah, Woo sees his world in shades of gray, rather than black and white--thus, it's not much of a reach for a cop and killer to turn out best friends. His modern Hong Kong action flicks have more in common with Peckinpah's Westerns than any routine cop drama. Woo's characters--usually distinguished in society by their appointments as either cops or criminals--are always deep, fascinatingly flawed people whose multi-dimensionality gives inflated, operatic dimensions to what would otherwise be standard action fare.
"The Killer" ("Die xue shuang xiong") is by far Woo's best film, and it is rightfully the vehicle that first got him widespread acclaim in America. He's gone on to make two unspectacular American films ("Hard Target," 1993, and "Broken Arrow," 1995) and one spectacular American film ("Face/Off," 1997, which owes much debt to "The Killer" both aesthetically and thematically). Woo's explosive action sequences, which are as visually stunning as they are graphically violent, are his calling card, and their influence can be seen in the direction of many American filmmakers like Tony Scott ("True Romance") and Robert Rodriguez ("Desperado").
"The Killer" tells the story of a professional assassin known only as John (Chow Yun-Fat), a man who kills for a living, but bears the burden of a conscience. He later tells another character that he killed as many people as he did because he thought they deserved to die. To some, this may be a twisted moral code by which to live, but in Woo's world, codes are codes, and they all mean something. The film is heavily reliant on the Asian notion of "honor," something that is all-too-often lost on American audiences. To John, being honorable means sticking to his word--it's hard not to be reminded of Pike, the leader in Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" (1969), when he said, "When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can't do that, you're like some animal."
Early in the film, John accidentally blinds a nightclub singer named Jennie (Sally Yeh) during one of his hits. Feeling guilty for the pain he has caused her, he becomes involved in her life. He decides to make one more hit in order to earn money to pay for a cornea transplant that might give Jennie her sight back. The job is delivered to him by Sydney (Chu Kong), John's best friend who acts as a liaison between John and his un-named employers. In this case, his employer is Johnny Weng (Fui-On Shing), a heartless gangster who double-crosses John and tries to have him killed after the hit is completed.
Meanwhile, Inspector Li (Danny Lee), the dogged police inspector who will eventually team up with John, is tracking him. Li is obsessed with capturing John, perhaps because he feels some kind of kinship to him, one that will not be made explicit until the two men finally meet face-to-face and are forced by Weng's army of hired killers to fight together for their lives.
As mentioned earlier, Woo's film has a great deal in common with Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch." Like the Bunch, John feels disillusioned in a modern age, and he eventually decides to give up his profession because his moral code and sense of honor are becoming outdated concepts in a world dominated by honorless men like Johnny Weng. Just as Pike told his group, "We gotta start thinking beyond our guns. Them days is closing fast," John tells Sydney, "Our world is changing so fast. It never used to be like this. Perhaps we're too nostalgic." John and Sidney are symbols of their dying world: when Sydney tells John at one point, "I must keep my promise," the emphasis is on "must." It's not a choice, it's a duty,and it ends up costing him his life and the lives of many around him.
The "The Killer's" driving force is pure melodrama, especially in the intermixing relationships John has with Jennie, Sydney, and Inspector Li. The most pronounced is his involvement with Li who, like John and Sydney, still hold to older morals and concepts of honor that the modern police force is taking away. At one point, Li tells John, "I believe in justice, but nobody trusts me," to which John responds, "I have the same problem." This conversation, which takes place next to a stream after Li has helped John cauterize a bullet wound he inflicted, is the linchpin on which the whole film shifts. It is here that John and Li, once antagonists, realize they are actually two sides of the same coin, and their connection as two outmoded, untrusted gunslingers set adrift in a corrupt world, sets the stage for the apocalyptic final shoot-out with Weng's men.
Woo stages the climax in an old church, which is also where the movie began, thus bringing it full circle. To say this highly stylized shoot-out is audacious would be an understatement. "The Killer" is the kind of film where everything is just slightly over-the-top, and the final scene is far and away the most pyrotechnic and melodramatic. Where one bullet would do the job, Woo gives us ten. The guns seem to have clips of endless ammunition, and John rarely uses only one firearm at a time. When a shotgun is fired, entire walls are shredded; when the enemies are shot, they don't simply fall back, but instead die in twisting, gymnastic spirals of flailing limbs and dripping gore, all perfectly timed in slow motion and set to the musical chorus of gunfire and swelling music.
Woo brings this explosive climax to tragic proportions, and choreographs the hail of bullets and blood-spurting carnage like a battle for the human soul itself, with John and Li as its two defenders, and Weng's faceless army of endless killers its attackers. That the film is intent in its indictment of the corruption of modern society is best illustrated in the final frames, which are completely unexpected, yet absolutely fitting with Woo's larger themes. Virtue and honor do not win in the end, and the entire moral system that John and Li live by seems to bend back against them.
Not many action films reach the level of mythic proportions achieved by "The Killer." "The Wild Bunch" is on that level, as are "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) and "The French Connection" (1971). Like those films, Woo uses his actors to great effect, especially Chow Yun-Fat, who has the kind of stature and noble, hardened face of an Asian Clint Eastwood. "The Killer" is certainly outrageous fun on a visceral, kinetic level for those who simply love a good action film. However, the fact that it also connects with deeper emotions and questions about the role of honor and virtue in today's complex modern world is not lost amidst the exploding cars and spurting wounds, and that is, perhaps, Woo's greatest accomplishment.
©1999 James Kendrick