The Killer (1990)
The Killer (1990)

Genre: Action and Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 51 min.

Release Date: January 22nd, 1990 MPAA Rating: R

Director: John Woo Actors: Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Wing-Cho Yip, Kwong Leung Wong, Barry Wong




itting in a church full of hundreds of lit candles, with a few choice doves lingering in the corners (a signature visual component of writer/director John Woo’s films), assassin Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat) prepares for his next assignment. After receiving a photo, money, and the weaponry for the task (from a longtime friend and triad elder, played by Kong Chu), he leaves the building in slow-motion – a dramatic sequence that is yet another hallmark for the filmmaker. Even though it’s unnecessary, the look is effective; before, during, and after sequences of extreme violence, slow-motion tends to make everything a bit more exciting.

Sure enough, Jong enters a restaurant to take out his target, stationed in a private back room. A bloodbath ensues, during which a considerable amount of bullets are unleashed on numerous bodyguards and goons, with blood spraying and bodies flying through the air, as if propelled by the force of a much larger arsenal. The incident doesn’t go without a hitch, however, as a lounge singer, Jenny (Sally Yeh), ends up coming between the hired killer and a leftover thug, resulting in a close-range firing that damages her corneas. She’s practically blinded, though the doctors assure her that one day her sight might be restored. And if that were to happen, she’s certain to finger the man responsible. “I will never forget him for the rest of my life.”

Feeling guilty over the innocent woman’s accidental involvement and injury, Jong visits her most nights, listening to her sing. After semi-retiring for nearly six months, he plans to do one final job to raise the money required to take Jenny to America for a cornea transplant (perhaps a deviant nod to Chaplin’s “City Lights”). Meanwhile, the criminal underworld in Hong Kong flourishes, with Inspector Li Ying (Danny Lee), codenamed Little Eagle, attempting to infiltrate Brother Hung’s (Kwong Leung Wong) murderous organization, which ends in destruction and death – including that of a random bystander by the policeman himself. Although Ying is harshly reprimanded, he’s put back into duty to guard a wealthy businessman (Wing-Cho Yip) during a lavish ceremony celebration. But that executive – with notorious triad links – happens to be Jong’s final target.

Clearly taking notes from the works of Sam Peckinpah, Woo’s crime drama is heavy on action and violence. Characters don’t just brandish weapons – repeated movements from various angles amplify the acts. And bodies don’t merely collapse from being shot – they conduct distorted dances as gaping holes are made and blood spurts in thick arcs. Similarly, collateral damage is extensive, villains are limitless, ammunition is endless, and neither the good guys nor bad guys exhibit caution when shooting into crowds of people. Plus, everywhere is an impromptu battleground and everyone is a possible hostage.

Despite the one-note narrative – essentially, murders transition into chases, which transition into additional murders in need of further chases – there’s an undeniable artistry in the gore-soaked catastrophes. Doctors struggle to stabilize a pulseless child as cops and crook are stuck in a stand-off; a doublecross flip-flops when the betrayal is anticipated, segueing into yet another shootout with gunmen thrashing in midair before crashing through windows and doors; Jenny’s blindness is utilized for some clever yet slapsticky scenes in which Jong and Ying exchange coded threats; a distraction in a crowded airport and scene transitions boast freeze-frames that fade into the next shot, even in the midst of action. The gun battles may be repetitive, but the visual verve is consistently dependable.

An assassin with a moral code and an uncommon sense of compassion aren’t new, particularly when combined with modern gangsters and the authorities closing in – authorities led by a rather sporting cop. But Woo’s attention to graphic details, his insistence on excessiveness, and his skill with action sequences make this adventure an uncommonly severe and tense ordeal. There’s some intermittent commentary on trust, honor, promises, friendship (heavy-handed at times), and a world no longer welcoming of outdated values (one of Peckinpah’s favorite themes), but these tend to fade away when bullets rain down on the heroes in every other scene. And it’s difficult to ignore the potent purpose of having the triad brutes wear white jackets and pants during the penultimate ambush; or staging the ultimate showdown in a church, where the bloodshed and demolition are at their highest points; or having the sense of vision feature prominently in the climax; or allowing the wrong things to be done in the name of an unobtainable justice, culminating in satisfaction over realism. Here, it always takes a dozen shots at point-blank range to fell an antagonist, which is remarkably amusing.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10