The Killer is a dizzying movie of action over words. Its plot may have a lot going on but it is reduced to a simple equation: Two men, Ah Jong (Yun-Fat) and Inspector Li Ying (Danny Lee), at opposing ends of the scale, slowly coming together.
Ah Jong is an assassin for hire, taking jobs for money without a care or concern for what the job is. He's being paid to kill gangsters and crooked politicians so as long as he gets paid, he'll kill anyone the client wants dead. When the movie begins, he's got a new assignment and dives right into the job. Walking into a nightclub where patrons drink and listen to a beautiful singer, Jenni (Sally Yeh), Ah Jong makes his way to a back room, knocks on the door, pulls out his guns and when a man opens the door, starts blasting. It's the first shootout we see in the movie and Woo doesn't disappoint. The important thing to remember with Woo is that the technique and style of the story is the story so the shootout serves as both propellant for the narrative and a story in and of itself.
Ah Jong shoots countless numbers of men in the club until, just at the end, the singer Jenni gets a shot blasted right in front of her eyes, damaging her corneas. Ah Jong tries to help her and ties a white scarf around her eyes before leaving.
He follows her singing engagements at clubs, knowing she has been blinded because of his actions, and helps her out one night when two men attack her. He fights them off and takes her home where he sees the white, blood-stained scarf hanging on a rack in her apartment. She tells him that she can see foggy outlines of people and that it's getting worse. He vows to help her but cannot bring himself to tell her he was the assassin in the club that night.
Meanwhile, Inspector Ying is trying to find out who went on a killing spree in the club and believes it is a hired assassin. The two come together in the same place and time when Ah Jong is hired to kill a political leader at a boat race and Ying is there to organize security and protection. When Jong shoots the leader from afar, Ying gives chase and follows Jong by boat to a nearby beach where Jong is engaged in yet another shootout with gangsters looking to eliminate him for their own security reasons. It's here that Ying observes Jong sacrifice his own safety to save a little girl and Ying begins to believe that Jong may be an assassin but a different one, one with a conscience. If that's the case, Ying deducts, Jenni might just be the perfect trap to lure him in.
And believe it or not, that's only about five percent of the story. And all within the first few minutes. Nothing has been given away and the twists and turns of the plot, mixed with the incessant action and bloodletting, are just two of the things Woo did better than anyone else at the time he was blazing these new trails in action cinema. It wasn't just that Woo added more to the recipe by adding a dash more gunplay or a sprinkle more plot, it was a whole new method of telling the story. In Woo's eighties action universe, dramatic framing occurs from the moment the story begins. Tracking shots and slow motion static shots of characters moving towards the camera become the way Woo defines the characters. Not through dialogue and not only through action but through framing as well.
The framing is interrupted by two things and two things alone: short expository dialogue and orchestrated violence. There aren't a lot of long, drawn out monologues in a John Woo film but there is dialogue. Dialogue whose sole intention is to further the plot. It doesn't need to deepen the character because Woo's existential heroes are defined by their actions and his framing so the dialogue simply propels the plot. The violence that occurs in between is choreographed and obviously so. Woo never attempts to go for naturalistic action but rather action that could be confused for an elaborate, and quite physical, dance. Each action sequence, with its hundreds of bullets and dozens of exploding squibs, stands alone as a kind of short-subject marvel, self-contained within the story going on around it.
The other element that makes The Killer so special is the placement of two protagonists against each other, leaving the antagonist as a kind of out of the way third party. The audience roots for both Jong and Ying because both are decent men and both see the world in shades of grey, not black and white. The audience knows if they can just understand each other, they won't be at odds. And this story only works thanks to the great chemistry of Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee, who work so well together (and had before) that Woo wasn't prepared to make the movie unless both of them agreed to do it. Lee was already becoming typecast by 1988 as the ethical cop but couldn't turn down the chance to work with Yun-Fat and Woo again.
John Woo went on to mainstream Hollywood success with movies like Broken Arrow (1996) and Face/Off (1997), both with John Travolta, the latter also with Nicolas Cage, as well as Mission: Impossible II (2000) with Tom Cruise. But it was his Hong Kong action thrillers that made his reputation and none of his later works ever quite matched the type of visceral mash-up of violence and choreography, of character and framing, that marked his best, early works. The Killer is the culmination of that style and it wasn't long afterwards that he found himself in Hollywood. The Killer ensured him life-long security and success and with it, Woo gave the world one of the best action movies of the eighties, nineties and beyond.
Director: John Woo Producer: Tsui Hark Screenplay: John Woo Cinematography: Wong Wing-Hang Film Editor: Kung-Wing Fan Art Direction: Man-Wah Luk Cast: Chow Yun Fat (Ah Jong), Danny Lee (Insp. Li Ying / Little Eagle), Sally Yeh (Jennie), Kong Chu (Fung Sei), Kenneth Tsang (Sgt. Tsang Yeh), Fui-On Shing (Wong Hoi)
By Greg Ferrara
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