in Criterion Month

The Killer (1989)

John Woo’s The Killer is a 1989 Hong Kong action thriller starring Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee as a compassionate hitman and the reckless detective who’s out to get him. It’s an insanely stylish action movie in which the rules of reality are brushed aside by rule of awesome. As in, shooting a pistol in each hand while diving through a window might not make practical sense, but it sure is cool to watch. “Life’s cheap. It only takes one bullet,” says a character at one point, but in practice it takes more like a hundred.

Ah Jong (Chow Yun-fat) is a master assassin for the Triad who accidentally injures a lounge singer, Jenny (Sally Yeh), during a shootout on one of his missions. Feeling guilty, Ah Jon starts watching Jenny perform and eventually introduces himself and befriends her. He finds out Jenny suffered significant vision loss as a result of the gunfight and will go completely blind unless she’s able to get a cornea transplant, an expensive treatment that she’ll have to go overseas for. So Ah Jong decides to his friend and Triad manager, Fung (Chu Kong), for one last job.

The hit goes well, but Ah Jong is spotted escaping by Inspector Li (Danny Lee), who aggressively chases the hitman over sea and land. To Li’s surprise, Ah Jong gives up a clean escape and instead decides to deliver a little girl who was injured in the gunfight to a hospital. Ah Jong does escape, but Li becomes obsessed with him, as he is not only impressed with his skill as a killer, but infatuated with Ah Jong’s apparent moral character.

Ah Jong returns home only to be attacked by Fung, who has not brought the money Ah Jong was promised. It turns out a ruthless Triad boss (Shing Fui-on) ordered Fung kill Ah Jong for being spotted on a mission. Ah Jong kills Fung’s men but leaves him alive, and rushes out to figure out his next move. Can he save Jenny’s sight? Will he be able to evade Inspector Li? How can he get out for being number one on the Triad’s shit list? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out!

John Woo cited among his inspirations for The Killer Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 neo-noir film Le Samouraï and, yo, even the poster looks similar. In that movie, Alain Delon plays the world’s best hitman who is just so cool but gets in trouble with his bosses and the police when he starts to fall for a musician who inexplicably protects him. So, yeah, they’re pretty similar, if still distinct enough that I wouldn’t call this a remake or anything. Plus, in that movie Jef proves he’s the best by outsmarting everybody but Ah Jong does that by just killing every motherfucker in the room.

The Killer was the origin for many John Woo film tropes, like candle-filled churches and doves flying in slow motion, so you just have to make peace with whether that style grates on you or not. I, for one, am here for it. Watching Ah Jong absolutely destroy every room he’s in is constantly amusing, as is the occasional followup scene of police trying to make sense of these crime scenes. We all already suspend our belief so much when watching gunfights in movies that I don’t have any problem with a director amping up the style of the action as high as he can. Real gun violence is so horrifying I’d rather not watch movies about that anyway.

The other thing that The Killer amps up is the melodrama, which I also appreciated. Ah Jong has intensely emotional relationship with every character in the movie: His guilt and love for Jenny means he’ll do anything for her, his respect and friendship with Fung makes his betrayal devastating, his common ground with Inspector Li makes the affection between the two seem even stronger than his love for Jenny. Ah Jong and Li are just two dudes trying to do the right thing in a world that FUBAR, what a shame they didn’t meet under better circumstances. How blessed we are that they got to meet at all.