Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Killer

Finally took time out to tackle Director John Woo's much lauded, highly acclaimed The Killer [1989]. It's been one of those films I've always wanted to see, but never had the opportunity to do so. Part of the reason the film has been so evasive is its availability [legally speaking]. An official copy of the DVD was scarce. A quality Criterion Edition of the DVD was issued in 1998. Fans absolutely adore that cut of the film and some consider it to be the quintessential DVD to own still. Well, that Criterion Edition is out of print and fairly scarce. In order to get that DVD on ebay or on Amazon one would need to shell out over 100 greenbacks. I just couldn't pull the trigger on it [appropriate phraseology given the film's content]. I sometimes wonder about ebay buyers [and I'm no exception]. What buyers won't dole out for items speaks to two points: either money is no object or we're completely out of our minds. Still, fans know no boundaries when it comes to the things they treasure.

In the end, The Killer was issued on Blu-Ray, at a reasonable price, by Dragon Dynasty and it's easy to visually understand the grumblings and general gripes by fans over its technical flaws. Techies want pristine. I prefer it myself, but when you're a beggar you simply can't be a chooser, and in this rare case I fell somewhere closer to the former camp. The Blu-Ray was my one and only option without filing for bankruptcy and for what it's worth I'm pleased to own this piece of cinema history.

My initial reactions to Director John Woo's film in the first quarter of the film were varied. There were moments of cringe-inducing 80s cheese complete with the noteworthy fashions of the day. There were even a few moments where the film semmed to crackle along with a kind of amateurish energy. This combined with the slightly dated look and technical imperfections forced me to proceed with some caution after years of building high expectations. But, as the Cantonese-based film rolled along I found myself slowly won over by Chow Yun-Fat's character, the emotional subtext that first felt mildly cheesy as well as John Woo's approach, style and pacing. It became apparent this was an actioner with a dose of sincerity and heart. While there was a distinct 80s sensibility to the fashion and soundtrack it seems something of a minor miracle this film looks as astounding as it does hailing from Canton, Southern China home to Hong Kong. This sequence is where the worm really turned for me in the story. How often does an action film pause like this? Wonderful.

Truthfully, one of the things that drew me to the film, was not so much the amazing or much heralded resume of Director John Woo [Mission: Impossible 2, Face Off, Hard Target, Hard Boiled], as deserved as it may be, but rather my affection for actor Chow Yun-Fat. Woo's work is certainly notable, but I am more deeply enamored with actor Yun-Fat's resume [see below]. Like actors Kurt Russell, Ian McShane, Christopher Walken or Rutger Hauer, I was immediately taken by the actor's screen presence upon my first personal introduction to his work. Since then, like the films of those aforementioned actors, I have been a close observer of the work of Chow Yun-Fat ever since.

My first exposure to Yun-Fat was not with a Woo picture, but rather Director Antoine Fuqua's debut feature film The Replacement Killers [1998]. While Yun-Fat and Woo clearly created a beautiful artistic marriage working together on a host of films, the two ultimately broke into the American markets in the 1990s to varying degrees of success, but ultimately both would make their marks internationally. The Replacement Killers stylish action instantly spoke to me, but was hardly original. In fact, it's clearly a far inferior work to many of the Woo/ Fat productions pre-Hollywood.

Fuqua's The Replacement Killers captured the essence of The Killer with a seemingly bigger budget including sequences [Mira Sorvino with Chow Yun-Fat] that look like copies of scenes extracted directly from The Killer [Chow Yun-Fat with Danny Lee]. Fuqua was a fan. The concept of a hired assassin was applied for Fuqua's film with a twist. Instead of Yun-Fat's character, another assassin, carrying out an assassination tasked to him, he opts out of his assignment due to the age of his next young target. His affection for the innocent would not allow him to cross such an ethical/ moral boundary. His personal code would not allow for such a violation. These moral codes are also at the heart of many of Woo's own Cantonese pictures. Following his decision, Yun-Fat's assassin character is primary target number one. Ultimately, the direction of both films are setups for Yun-Fat to act the part of an assassin on the run. The stories are essentially told by image and through visceral action complete with wonderful slow motions shots. Fuqua even takes a page from Woo's pictures and applies them to his own Hollywood production. The Replacement Killers [28 million budget] was Yun-Fat's introduction to the American marketplace and it's is a terrific little Honk Kong-styled action gem without actually being one. One thing is clear, The Killer's influence on Director Fuqua and others is undeniable.

The Killer is indeed one of John Woo's original best for its pure, single-minded focus. At the heart of the action is a simple tale about two men at odds with their own personal codes of conduct and their relationship fused with a love story and a few guns. The Killer is an extremely violent action picture with a heart. It's easily a template for much of Woo's oeuvre. It may not be a technically perfect film a la Hollywood, but for an overseas picture with a limited budget it achieves a visionary style that is unrelenting and influential. Like Antoine Fuqua, Quentin Tarantino and Luc Besson both clearly absorbed much from Woo. Woo's style is vivid and he clearly compensated for any limitations he might have experienced in the film's making to bring a classic to the screen.
It was also clear to me by the end of the picture that my adoration for Chow Yun-Fat is not unjustified. The man is clearly the uncontested agent of cool. He is the man. In fact, while The Replacement Killers is very good, The Killer has an emotional resonance within its moral narrative that had me connected to the characters that much more. Chow Yun-Fat's character, Ah Jong, becomes embroiled in a cat and mouse game opposite Li Ying [played by Danny Lee], a police detective that dogs him at every turn perhaps more determined than the assassin himself. While certainly not wholly original the pairing of the two actors adds real depth to the story intercut with minutes of splendidly choreographed action. You begin to understand the worlds of these two men. You also begin to realize they are not that different. Both men are persistent, intelligent, professional with a healthy respect for loyalty and honor. Both are subject to variations in code and beholden to external expectations and pressures. In fact, later in the film, Ah Jong points out these similarities and the exposition spelling out their connection is entirely unnecessary for the audience. There are complex moral questions in play as the film reaches its rousing conclusion. The complicated nature of the two men keep things from devolving into stereotypical cardboard cutouts between the action sequences. Ah Jong doubts his commitment to the assassin's life and yearns to escape it; Li Ying doubts his commitment to the law without support of the institution and yearns to escape it.

The Killer makes James Bond look like child's play. The gloves come off in the final act and the bloody shoot out echoes a kind of Asian version of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid [1969]. I immediately felt the connection to that film especially when Ah Jong references the idea of shooting his way out of the church. In fact, as much as The Replacement Killers owes a debt of gratitude to Woo's The Killer, there is clear evidence Woo is paying homage to Director George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid [1969] among others.

Apart from a slight bit of melodrama,a syrupy Cantonese pop number and the cheesy synthetic Asian score my wife dubs as porn music that runs the course of the film, The Killer is positively epic. It's easy to account for the hordes of fans that love the cinematic style of The Killer. I would rank myself among them along with the work of Chow Yun-Fat. He has a unique charisma that is very physical. There isn't a great deal of dialogue and with Yun-Fat none is required. His guns speak for him. Dancing throughout a thrilling ballet of violence, the stunning Yun-Fat is a consummate professional killer with a heart. I always knew the 80s had it in spades, film, music, you name it. In fact, there's a lot more going on in The Killer than The Replacement Killers, which is higher on style than substance. While that film was a stylistic achievement, this one is the original with a more substantive plot. So, my mission to learn more about the vast world of Yun-Fat and to experience for myself this long heralded classic that is The Killer proved to be a revealing and rewarding one. The film was everything and a bit more. The Killer is a classic piece of cinema history.
One final point, the Triad [the criminal syndicate from which Ah Jong and his friend, Fung Sei, hailed] is changing. The concept of honor and loyalty and respect is dying. I loved this aspect of the film and it reminded me of The Syndicate from Cowboy Bebop [1998-1999], clearly influenced by the Hong Kong pictures, and how the elders were wiped out by the younger replacements like Vicious who had no respect for honor. Honor and a code of ethics are by-gone aspects of the criminal life in film and this is underlined in both Cowboy Bebop and The Killer. Good and evil are represented by the symbolic flight of birds [doves or crows]. There were moments in Cowboy Bebop that reminded me of The Replacement Killers, but it was clearly The Killer and other Hong Kong cinema that influenced the aforementioned anime series and other contemporary action films. There's nothing Hollywood about The Killer and the fates of its principals. It's modern Asian tragedy with stylish excess. Still, how does the killer load those gun clips so quickly? Guns would seemingly empty their chambers in seconds, but miraculously continue to fire. Okay, maybe that's asking a bit too much. The Killer is a wild, sometimes messy, ultimately beautiful triumph of style and images as a vehicle for telling Woo's emotional story that weaves like a stream of visual poetry. This combination of action and story produced a clearly universal message, which may explain its wide international appeal. This is pure, complete, unscripted [literally shot without a finished script] classic John Woo [with little to no outside influence]. Together, with Chow Yun-Fat, The Killer remains one of their Hong Kong best and one of their best films period.
The Killer: A
Writer: John Woo
Director: John Woo
The Cast:
Chow Yun-Fat [Ah Jong]
Sally Yeh [Jennie]
Danny Lee [Detective Li Ying]
Kenneth Sang [Sgt. Tsang Yeh]
Paul Chu Kong [Fung Sei]
Chow Yun-Fat [1955-present]. Cantonese born. His film highlights include: A Better Tomorrow [1986], A Better Tomorrow II [1987], City On Fire [1987], The Killer [1989], A Better Tomorrow III [1990], Full Contact [1992], Hard Boiled [1992], Once A Thief [1994], The Replacement Killers [1998], The Corruptor [1999], Anna And The King [1999], Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [2000], Bulletproof Monk [2003], Curse Of The Golden Flower [2006] and The Children Of Huang Shi [2008].
DVD Extra highlights include an exclusive interview with Director John Woo [25 min], an American Cinema Q&A on The Killer [2002] and Hard Boiled [2002].


John Kenneth Muir said...

Hi Sci-Fi Fanatic,

This look back at "The Killer" is an interesting change of pace, and a fascinating retrospective regarding a movie I knew very little about. Thanks for opening my eyes to it.

And I loved your comments on E-Bay buyers -- so true. I don't think it's that the money's no object, either...just we're out of our minds when it comes to this kind of thing, right?! I know that's how it is in my case :)

I really enjoyed this!

John Kenneth Muir

le0pard13 said...

Fantastic write-up on an iconic film, SFF! I remember folks were talking about this film in the 90's at the video stores. I first rented it and was blew away by it. It really was a breathtaking introduction for both John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat. By many, CY-F was considered the Humphrey Bogart of Asian crime films at that time. That comes off like an odd choice, but I don't because of the man's charisma on screen. Bogart (especially in his early crime era) was a spot-on reference. You can't take your eyes off of the man.

I especially appreciate your post contrasting Fuqua's REPLACEMENT KILLERS and Hill's BUTCH CASSIDY and the SUNDANCE KID with this film. Do you remember Tarantino's reference to THE KILLER in JACKIE BROWN? Woo has influenced a lot of U.S. filmmakers -- and driven those of us who count bullets spewed a little crazy (a .45 semi auto pistol does not have an unlimited ammo capacity).

I really enjoyed reading this, SFF. Thanks so much for this.

Unknown said...

Great review on one of THE best action films ever... altho, if push comes to shove I still rate Woo's HARD-BOILED above THE KILLER. Sure, it doesn't have the weighty themes that THE KILLER does, but for sheer high-octane action and insanely staged ambitious action sequences, you'd be hard pressed to top HARD-BOILED.

I know how you feel about Chow Yun-Fat. I find him endlessly fascinating and he's got an incredible screen presence. One year I attended the Toronto Int'l Film Festival and saw Chow introduce ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. Talk about movie star power and charisma. He came into the jam-packed theater and had everybody mesmerized. He seemed like an incredibly nice and gracious man, very humble and talked about how Jack Nicholson's performance in that film inspired him to go into acting.

Anyways, THE KILLER is a keeper and I really need to pick up this new Dragon Dynasty edition if only for all the extras which look pretty sweet?

Have you seen Chow in the A BETTER TOMORROW films? He is absolutely amazing in PART 2.

le0pard13 said...

I second J.D.'s recommendation for Woo's HARD BOILED. He's quite right that for its audacious, insanely kinetic action sequences, nothing beats it. I don't wanna think about the amount of time/labor it took just to rig the squibs and load the voluminous number of magazines used in the film. Good one, J.D.

SFF said...


Thank you. Yea, I know what you mean. I was looking to shake it up a bit. thanks for the kind words and support as always John. It means alot.

And I completely agree, I fall right into the latter camp of CRAZY for ebay goodies. I'm coo-coo for Cocoa puffs of the ebay variety.

Thanks Leopard13.

Exactly, Yun-Fat is such a pleasure to watch for charisma alone. He's always been an attraction for me. And I should say that I'm not an action-oriented/genre type fan in any way, shape or form. There is an artistry to this film that sets it apart, because I don't normally take to films of this nature. They really have to be good and there has to be something special about them. This one qualifies in my opinion. Endless bullet spraying is not normally my thing, but this does take the art form to a different place. I really enjoyed it.

I did see Jackie Brown. I liked that film quite a bit, but I don't recollect the reference. I'll have to watch again soon. Thanks for the additional information L13, you inspired me to write some additional thoughts down here. Thank you.

Thanks my friend. Looks like great minds think alike.

I absolutely love Fat. Thanks for your sharing your experiences here.
The Killer is a classic. Hands down. No question. I've missed out and I'm glad to finally right that ship.

Speaking of Fat, I definitely plan to write a bit more about him here in the future. I also have Hard Boiled in my queue. It wasn't available on Blu-Ray so I bought the DVD. I'd like to see A Better Tomorrow I and II, but the trailers didn't quite take me. I may reconsider based upon your comments here.

And again, Hard Boiled is up next for one of my casual viewing nights. You really can't say enough about John Woo. He seems like a gentleman to boot. I have not seen many of his films. I did see Face Off. Good. The whole idea of it was so preposterous, that it bothered me after enjoying it. Woo is a talent though. Do you recommend his American productions? Hard Target w Van Damme? Thank you again all.

Unknown said...

As far as the BETTER TOMORROW films go, I would check out PART 2 as it is infinitely superior to its predecessor. As for Woo's North American output, most of it is crap and he's basically recycling his HK output or being hemmed in by the studios. FACE/OFF is really the first time he was able to cut loose with his trademark style and look how awesome it was?

If you can track it down (try, I would recommend the bootleg director's cut of HARD TARGET which still doesn't save Van Damme's awful performance but it is interesting to see just how much Woo's trademark style was cut by the censors/studio.

le0pard13 said...

IMDB's trivia section for Jackie Brown covers that reference best:

"Ordell tells Louis in the beginning, that the people he sells guns to don't just want one gun, but two "because they all wanna be the Killer." This is the reference to "The Killer" (The Killer (1989)), and John Woo's style of shootout scenes where a person fires from two guns simultaneously. Later, Jackie Brown is seen holding two guns and pointing them at Ordell at the same time, in the dark, right after she confiscates Ordell's gun."

Which reminds me, it's almost September and time for my annual JB screening. Love that movie!

J.D. is correct again about that director's cut of HARD TARGET. I picked up that disc based on his recommendation. If you're interested, I can lend it to you. Just send me your address via my contact email (on my blog) and I'll mail it to you. Take care.

SFF said...

Hey J.D.

You see, you really reconfirm my worst fears about Woo under the American system. I have had little to no interest in checking his work out here.

I've been infinitely excited to see his Honk Kong work, but nothing here. I've seen Face Off and that's all. I haven't even seen M:I 2.

So, based on your recommendation I will definitely check out A Better Tomorrow. I'm pleased to hear the second film is better than the first.

Hey L13-

Thanks so much for the quote. I loved it. I wish I had it before I posted. Maybe I'll add it for fun. Thank you.

I'll definitely be in touch regarding Hard Target. That is awful kind of you. I really appreciate your offer and I would certainly give it a quick turnaround. Thanks so much guys.

le0pard13 said...

No problem, and you don't have hurry in watching it. Now to really frustrate you regarding what Woo's HARD TARGET could have been:

"Kurt Russell was considered for the title role."


SFF said...

God, you're kidding! Now that is ashame. That really is frustrating. What a different film it could have been. Can you imagine Woo and Russell? That would have been the American version of Woo and Yun-Fat. That one hurts.

Unknown said...

Another interesting bit of HARD TARGET trivia, the studio execs were so nervous about Woo's style of filmmaking that they threatened to bring in Sam Raimi to take over as director but he told them that they were crazy to even think about replacing a master like Woo! Good to see Raimi sticking by one of his idols.

SFF said...

That's another interesting point J.D.. Good to se the talented Raimi stay loyal and hang back. Two distinctly different directors too. Hollywood is a crazy place.

le0pard13 said...

BTW, next week Dragon Dynasty releases their Blu-ray Disc of Hard Boiled.

SFF said...

Thanks L13. I'm right there with you. It's on my watch list.

Sorry for the moderation my friend. It had to happen for older posts thanks to those nasty bots out there.