You’ve seen The Killer. Even if you haven’t actually watched it, you’ve seen parts of The Killer because every action director you love has borrowed from it. In some cases, they’ve outright stolen from director John Woo’s masterpiece. It’s just that good.
The Killer stars Hong Kong Cinema Icon Chow Yun Fat as Ah Jong, a disillusioned assassin who accidentally blinds a club singer, Jennie (Sally Yeh), in a shootout. After learning Jennie’s vision can be restored by an expensive surgery, Jong performs one last hit to earn the money for Jennie’s operation. The hit, and subsequent gun battles, are possibly the most violent-yet-operatic action sequences committed to film. It’s hard to put into words how groundbreaking they were when the film opened in 1989 because Woo’s style is so ubiquitous in modern cinema. The gunfights in The Killer aren’t just good gunfights, they are the gun fights. Chow’s Jong isn’t the tough, paramilitary action hero of American cinema. He moves with the grace of a ballerino, dual-wielding semi auto pistols with the same panache with which Gustavo Dudamel directs the LA Philharmonic.
In one of the films many shootouts, a kid gets struck by a stray bullet. Jong risks his own safety and rushes the kid to the hospital. Witnessing Jong’s courage, Detective Li Ying (Danny Lee) becomes obsessed with Jong’s sense of honor. What follows is an elaborate game of cat and mouse that not only serves as a blueprint for future action films, but also tackles heavy themes. While The Killer celebrates violence, Jong doesn’t revel in the carnage he’s so good at creating. Woo’s hero is introspective, contemplative. Chow plays Jong like the warriors described in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. He’s got an artistic quality and quiet determination seldom seen in action movie protagonists. Jong may not exude machismo, but when the bullets start flying he’s every bit as lethal as Leone’s Man with No Name or Bronson’s Kersey in Death Wish.
Contrasting the mayhem, The Killer explores platonic male relationships with a near-romantic level of intimacy. In earlier, less emotionally enlightened times, some reviewers branded Woo’s depiction of men with conflicting ideologies forming a friendship out of respect for their differences as homoerotic. Jong and Detective Ying’s bond defies their roles as assassin and police officer, challenging notions of good and evil. Is a hit man wrong for killing evil people? Is a police officer right for upholding laws that protect the guilty? Melodrama is a staple of Hong Kong cinema. All Hong Kong Cinema. It’s not something that could work in American action films, but it works here.
There’s a rawness that adds to the appeal of The Killer. Most fans are tail end-Baby Boomers or Gen Xers who found the film when it was released on VHS in the early ’90s. These were pre-internet days. YouTube wasn’t even a dot on the horizon. You either rented it because you saw a clip at your local video store or you heard about it from a more plugged-in friend. That friend could barely describe what they saw because there was no shared reference that aptly described how visually amazing The Killer was. Woo’s Hong Kong is darker than Scorsese’s New York and run by Triads as dangerous as the mob in any Coppola film. Woo took many tropes American audiences were familiar with and made them his own. The Killer isn’t just an Eastern take on American action films; it’s infused with Asian Culture. And there were the doves and pigeons representing good and evil!
At the time, stateside audiences were used to a more linear film experience. If you were writing an action film, it needed to be all-action with sparse, emotionless characterization that matched the cold, violent aesthetic of the film. That wasn’t The Killer. Woo’s film is simultaneously ultra-violent and hyper-sensitive. Jong is superhuman, gliding through hail after hail of bullets and returning gunfire from magical pistols that never run out of ammunition. But he’s also soft-spoken and sentimental. One could argue Chow Yun Fat is to movie gunplay what Bruce Lee is to movie fights. It’s all here, served up like greatest hits of stylized gun violence: sliding across the floor to kill an attacker, leaping through the air to dodge machine-gun fire, partners fending off an army of attackers by seamlessly working together and throwing guns to one another, etc.
If you’re a fan of directors like Luc Besson, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Tony Scott, the Wachowskis or even newcomers Gareth Evans, Justin Lin or the Russo Brothers, you owe it to yourself to see The Killer. If you’ve seen it a million times, like the directors above, watch it again for its 25th Anniversary. Chances are, it’s better than whatever The Killer clone you were going to watch anyway.
David Atchison is a freelance writer and former Air Force public affairs specialist. He’s written the Occult Crimes Taskforce comic series with actress Rosario Dawson, the Method Man graphic novel for the Wu-Tang rapper, the Warriors comic series for Dynamite Entertainment, among other things. Atchison also works with the 20th Century Fox Film Story Department and tweets at @DavidNAtchison