Bullets flying, bodies splaying, white doves scattering: all the John Woo trademarks are present in scene after scene of explosive action supplemented with dreamy Asian colours and simplified melodic electronic music. In The Killer (1989), an astonishing early work that brought Woo’s name to the attention of the world, the director strives for operatic heights in a familiar, but daringly realised tale of the perplexing duality adjoining adversaries on opposing sides of the law.
In one corner is hired assassin Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat), a man with only a peripheral sense of morality, despite the ruthless efficiency with which he performs his duty. When he accidentally blinds a nightclub singer, Jennie (Sally Yeh), during his latest hit, his sense of guilt compels him to look out for her. He befriends her without revealing his identity but soon has both the police and the triad he works for on his trail for allowing his identity to become widely known.
Leading the charge for his capture is Inspector Li (Danny Lee), a wayward cop whose obsessive, single-minded approach to crime solving doesn’t always endear him to his superiors. It’s his task to defend an important figure at a public ceremony, a man who turns out to be Jeff’s next target. The subsequent chase draws the two men together where they unexpectedly become aligned by circumstance. Less unexpected is the sight of two men in a familiar stand-off pose with guns pointed at one another. This unique signifier, a Woo trademark, is an insistent, recurring image he uses like a visual motif.
The most intriguing element of The Killer explores the affinity these two men share when forced to become allies to save their lives as the triad closes in with its army of hapless opponents. Li’s curiosity is piqued by both Jeff’s decision to save an imperilled girl during their shootout, as well as his obvious affection for Jennie; in time he senses, in the other man, another outsider straying beyond the expected boundaries of his profession, dubious and morally repugnant to him, though it may be.
This notion of a unifying strand binding the two men only strengthens as their lives are placed in greater jeopardy. Jeff bemoans the dawn of a new era, one he refuses to accept in offering his life or that of Jennie as a premium for his perceived sins; in a reflective moment, he explains that “we’re too nostalgic” to his handler and only friend, Fung (Kong Chu). It becomes increasingly obvious that he and Li’s destinies are entwined, and as twin images of the other, Li needs to assume the mindset of his adversary to track him down.
Michael Mann may have explored similar ground with slightly more sophistication in his later masterpiece Heat (1995), but here Woo infuses his occasionally melodramatic tale with distinctly Asian shadings; equally true is that no American director in history, not even Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch (1969), has achieved the sustained level of exhilarating gunplay that Woo achieves in The Killer.
The battles are furious and bloody, carried off with extraordinary flair and technical precision; despite a series of impressive set pieces through the first two acts however, they prove to be only part of a minor preamble to the final showdown in a church, where the film begins and ends.
The triad descends with its gun-toting minions, and Jeff and Li are backed into a corner with the helpless Jennie cowering beside them. The would-be executioners are as dumb as they are lacking in any notion of strategic attack, but as wave after wave emerge from the dark night, Woo elevates his systematic slaughter to the level of high art, replete with painstakingly choreographed carnage, balletic slow-mo, crude but painterly framings stretched with a range of garish colouring – in short, an assault on the senses that’s impossible to deflect.
Both Lee and Yun-Fat are exceptional, the latter providing that inescapable, sublime charisma that marks all his performances, whilst Lee is an attractive reminder of the kind of renegade, barely-defendable M.O’s of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan and officers of his ilk, and endlessly embodied in authority-resistant, cinematic anti-heroes ever since.
An essential, defining moment in Hong Kong cinema, The Killer is a staggering film and John Woo’s indisputable masterpiece; it’s sure to be regarded as monotonous and repellent to some for wallowing in its brutal, stylistic excesses, and as passionately glorified and revered by the rest of us for the very same reasons. It remains a visceral funhouse ride, a kinetic, gore-soaked shooting gallery brought to vivid, existential life; in short, though far removed from reality, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen.