Oct 14 2009

The Killer

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible.  For those who liked the action in Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2, we review one of the earlier works of John Woo, from before he made the transition to U.S. soil.  The Killer, is one of his better known, and better respected films, and this week we take it on as part of our film duel column.

The Killer
Year: 1989
Directed by: John Woo
Written by: John Woo
Starring: Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee, Kong Chu
Genre: Action, Crime

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

There are certain film creators from who’s style permeates their work so thoroughly, that you pretty much know what to expect from one of their films before you even press play. This is both good and bad in various instances. It can be good because, if you like their work, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get at least some enjoyment out of every one of their films. It’s a downside because even if you do like their work, there’s rarely anything fresh about an individual entry in their filmography. It’s also a downside because if you don’t like one of their films, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll like their others. John Woo is one of the many filmmakers who brings his style to each and every one of his films, and rarely deviates even on the content of his movies. The Killer is one of his better known movies made before his transition to the Hollywood system, and it certainly delivers on all of a knowledgeable viewers expectations for a John Woo film.

For those not aware, John Woo is best known in the states for Face/Off and Mission Impossible 2. The Killer is basically his take on a subgenre of films that was extremely popular during the 90’s, that of the hit man with a heart of gold. It stars Chow-Yun Fat as Ah Jong, an assassin who accidentally injures and blinds an innocent singer, and sparks a romance with her. Meanwhile a policeman, Inspector Li Ying hunts him down for his recent assassinations. The plot is every bit as cliché as it sounds, but at the time it had the advantage of preceding some of the most identifiable hit man stories, such as Leon the Professional. It takes advantage of a relatively proven formula (probably most utilized in Western films before it came to popularity in the form of the assassin genre), and because of this, it works well enough to get you through to the action scenes. Unfortunately, the action scenes are so much more energetic and entertaining that you find yourself bored with the pace when they aren’t happening.

This movie definitely has aged in a lot of ways, but the most glaring is the film’s score, which exemplifies the cheesiest of 80’s trends, and with its 1989 release, this aspect had to feel outdated even when the film was brand new. Even John Woo’s stylistic flairs aren’t as refined as you will see down the line when he has a bit more experience and larger budget. The acting, aside from Chow Yun Fat, who does a serviceable job, is pretty sub par. It’s not as bad as some other martial arts films, which always seem to get a bye in the acting category, but it still feels like a TV movie at times. But none of this is why you go to see a John Woo movie anyway.

You see John Woo films for ridiculous gun fights, slow motion action scenes, some awesome stylish composition, and doves. Seriously, lots of doves. In fact, John Woo must correctly have assumed that none of his newly found American viewers had seen his previous work when he made Face/Off, because The Killer features multiple scenes that involve lots of guns, lots of doves, and a church setting, all of which are utilized in the climax of Face/Off. But let’s face it, even when you’ve seen them before, these things are just so cool when you put them all together. John Woo’s characters have a habit of just pumping their enemies full of bullets without hesitation or checking to see if further bullets are necessary. It’s a horrible waste of bullets, and it’s the kind of thing that you look at and question, and then dismiss because it looks badass. Characters never run out of bullets either, despite the fact that they never seem to be carrying extra magazines on their person. No, magazines just appear from nowhere when they are needed. But scrounging around for bullets or keeping an armory in their suit would detract from the style and the pacing of the action scenes that works so well. So basically, when watching the film, you have to employ an active suspension of disbelief so that you can enjoy style over substance. And every now and then, this isn’t a bad thing. John Woo does action scenes incredibly, and they’re worth the trudge through the cheesy drama. In fact, he revolutionized action scenes for the next decade. The Matrix would likely not exist without his work, and certainly the lesser action films between these two points owe a great debt to what John Woo did.  If there’s one downside to the action scenes, it’s that a great many characters appear for the first time only to get shot moments later.  It’s hard to care about these characters, even so far as to be glad when they are shot, when you don’t even really know who they are.

While this is nowhere near his first, nor his greatest film, this is still a great insight into the development of John Woo’s style, and his sense of action. And let’s face it, if you want to turn your mind off for a while, and enjoy some cool fight scenes, you need look no further. Just keep in mind that that’s pretty much all you’ll get out of it.

Benn says:

The difficulty of watching films that had come out before I was of any reasonable age is that I don’t know what the cinematic expectations were prior to a film that ended up raising the bar for filmmaking. Granted, due to film history I know which films were revolutionary and which films upped the ante in terms of content or cinematography, but it’s difficult to really appreciate these films if you weren’t there to see these films when they were originally released.

John Woo’s 1989 crime drama The Killer is often said to have taken action sequences to the next level, going from simple point-and-shoot instances to rich, highly choreographed sequences that resembled a heavily armed ballet.

The Killer introduces us to two men who, despite being on opposite sides of the law, have more in common than one would think. The first, Jeffrey (Chow Yun-Fat) is a professional hit man with a strict code of honor, and shows an unusual amount of compassion for those not caught between his crosshairs. The other is Inspector Li (Danny Lee), a determined cop who is more interested in justice and punishing criminals than going along with the politics and bureaucracy of law enforcement. These two forces collide when Inspector Li starts investigating Jeffery’s latest hit, and Jeffrey is double crossed by his employer.

The action scenes are nothing short of spectacular. Each sequence is perfectly orchestrated, yet comes off so naturally that one could believe that Jeffery is performing all of these feats in the heat of the moment. Woo takes complete advantage of his setting and makes every corner, every window and every bit of furniture play a role in the action scenes. Throughout the film, Jeffery is catching guns in mid air, firing two guns at once, sliding across chairs, and pretty much doing everything but standing still whilst blasting holes in anything and everything.

It would be a cinematic crime to review The Killer without mentioning Woo’s grand finale, which takes the form of a massive shootout in a church. It is, without a doubt, on of the finest action scenes in history, and easily holds it own against films with a larger budget and CGI. Once Inspector Li and Jeffery team up to fend off the endless number of gangsters, the energy of this scene never stops; people jump through windows, blown clear across the church, chunks of walls are blown to kingdom come and a flock of doves encircle the ever-escalating chaos above. All in all, it’s an elegant, testosterone opera.

Violence, however, is not the only The Killer has going for it. It would be easy for this film to fall into the high-concept, feeble-minded cliché that are cop dramas, portraying Jeffery as the “ruthless killer” and Inspector Li as the “rogue, maverick cop” who’ll take ‘em down. Luckily, Woo added more depth into both of these characters, rather than rely on flat generalizations that we have all seen time and time again. Jeffery is portrayed as a peaceful man who spend most of his nights in a nearby church, and while on the job goes out of his way to make sure innocent bystanders do not get caught. On the other end of the spectrum is Inspector Li, who values justice above all else and, as he begins to study Jeffery, begins to respect this supposed criminal’s codes of honor and morals.

Oddly enough, what gives this film its greatest texture is how it deals with the theme of friendship amidst a violent surrounding. Kong Chu gives the film’s greatest performance as Jeremy’s longtime friend and contact Sidney. Chu could have played to part of the desperate, aging hit man as a pitiful simpleton, but instead portrays Sidney as a nostalgic old relic trying to act on the codes of days long past. The relationship between Li and Jeffery is as unusual as it is genuine, as two men who should be trying to kill each other find a number of similarities in the other’s character. Both men represent a dying breed that adheres to a code of justice and honor, and for their sins they are on the way out, so to speak. For as subtle as their connection is, Yun-Fat and Lee do a terrific job at making their fast friendship believable, as their characters become two against a very dangerous world, making the film’s final shootout so exciting on a cerebral level, as well as on a visual one.

The only weak element of the story lies with the young blind nightclub singer Jenny (Sally Yeh), whom Jeffery accidentally blinded in a botched assignment. Naturally, Jeffery seeks her out and tries to get her a cornea transplant to restore her sight… and it’s about as predictable as you could imagine. Jenny does little more than get teary-eyed, lean on Jeffery’s shoulders and scream whenever disaster occurs. Since she’s depicted as little more than a weepy little woman, her relationship with Jeffery seems too forced and, frankly, it takes away from the relationship between the two male leads, which actually adds something to the film.

As far as action films are concerned, The Killer stands out for it’s action scenes that are nothing short of brilliant, and one can plainly see the John Woo set the stage for other films of this genre for years to come. Though the plot is not without its clichés and faults, the performances of Yun-Fat, Lee, and Chu give the film a surprising amount of heart, which only makes the action that much more suspenseful and intense.

Benn’s rebuttal:

I will agree that The Killer resembles an Eighties TV movie, especially in the beginning.  However, I do think that once Jeffrey (aka Ah Jong) and Inspector Li get together, the acting and the story gets much better.

This movie most certainly laid the groundwork for the modern day action flick, but I found that The Killer is still amongst the best as far as shoot ’em up scenes are concerned, despite it’s age.

James’ rebuttal:

Benn is really onto something with his comments on the friendship amongst violence.  It really is the thing that holds this film together emotionally, and makes it not just a series of awesome action films.

I also agree that John Woo really knows how to use the real estate of his sets, and keep things interesting and dynamic in the action scenes.  It’s not just guys pumping bullets into each other, it is, as Benn says, a brilliantly choreographed dance.

One Response to “The Killer”

  • James Goux Says:

    Just for fun I’ll point out that this film has a lot of thematic similarities to Michael Mann’s work, most glaring in Heat and Public enemies. Since Heat didn’t come out till 1995, it could have been influenced by it. On the other hand, Heat is essentially based on Michael Mann’s TV movie, L.A. Takedown, which came out the same year as The Killer, so maybe it’s just a matter of two filmmakers being on the same wavelength.

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