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John Woo’s The Killer may have a generic title, but it’s considered one of the greatest action movies ever. It inhabits not only Woo’s many hallmarks but carries with it a strong desire to bring something more out of the genre. Although, yes, it does have some amazingly cool fight scenes.
A Hitman’s Last Hit
The mood of The Killer is beautifully staged as one of tragedy and redemption. When the film introduces the hitman Ah Jong (Chow Yun-fat), he’s sitting in a candle-lit church accepting his last assignment. He’s hoping to put this life of violence behind him and that he might be able to change himself.
The hit does not go well. It all goes down at a low-key nightclub where a blast of bullets brings chaos among gangsters. Although Jong looks calm and collected during his many exchanges of gunfire, an accident leads to him blinding the club’s singer, Jennie (Sally Yeh). Having felt guilty about this encounter, Jong keeps his eyes on the woman as she heals.
Over time, a romance blooms between the gangster in the singer. It’s the perfect course for finding redemption. The problem is that to save Jennie’s sight, he’ll need more money. That means more killing and potentially harming more of the innocent.
A Cop’s Questioning
On the other side of the law is the police officer Detective Li Ying (Danny Lee). Much like Jong, Ying has also grown disillusioned with his profession. During a failed undercover attempt, Jong is blamed for his partner succumbing to a heart attack. He also watches as innocent people are needlessly gunned down in his line of work.
When Li catches up to Jong, he learns his tragic story of redemption—trying to be more committed to protecting the innocent. Finding common ground, the cop and the killer join forces to protect Jennie from the criminal underworld. This ultimately leads to the film’s explosive church climax of gunfire, fighting more for someone else than themselves.
An Action Duo
Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee make this movie work beyond the extraordinary shootout moments they’re launched into. But, wow, it can’t be overstated just how cool these scenes look. Everything from their gunpoint standoff to their back-to-back assault on enforcers is dazzling.
Both actors are called upon to showcase a weariness with their professions. They’re not meant to be the stoic men that usually plague shoot-em-up movies. They have deep feelings of bitterness and pity for their world, enraged that they’re trapped within systems they cannot control.
This connection between the two leads to a strong friendship. As their crusade continues, there’s a knowing love they show each other. As the violent climax nears its conclusion, they share glances of joy before venturing into the gunfire; they have expressions so filled with humanity the film even pauses to appreciate these moments that matter most.
Highlighting the Violence
Plenty of 1980s action films glaze over the collateral damage of human life lost. The Killer feels different because the film treats the carnage with terror and concern. Every life unintentionally targeted weighs heavy on the cop and killer, having seen much death in their line of work.
During a shootout between the police and the mob, a child is injured in the exchange of gunfire. Horrified by this result, Jong goes out of his way to rush this kid to the hospital. This act shows consideration for life and a hope for redemption in Jong that Li recognizes and shares.
This framing of violence is present amid everything from the intimate moments to the loud shootouts. It feels like more is being communicated about this violent lifestyle’s inhumanity. In a rather sobering moment, an emotional Jennie takes hold of a gun during her desperation and fires it. The look of shock and horror on her face when she pulls that trigger and feels that kickback adds an extra dose of cold realization of the nature of gun violence.
A Woo hallmark established in this film is the use of doves. The birds that fly about the church scenes offer perfect punctuation of the beauty of souls while life is lost. It was such a strong and striking symbolism that Woo would continue to use birds in his future projects.
Specifically, John Woo’s American movies carried a lot of birds peppering the action. This includes Hard Target (1993) and Face/Off (1997). The iconography also became a source of inspiration (Cowboy Bebop) and parody (Drawn Together), among many inspired by Woo’s trademark visual flair.
Not as popular, however, is another depiction of animal symbolism in The Killer with a cat. A cat, within Chinese culture, is meant to symbolize ruin if it enters a home. The characters Tsang and Jennie get a visit from a cat, and darkness befalls their lives. It’s a subtle touch of adding omens into the mix but, admittedly, not as memorable as doves fluttering about churches and combat.
The Hark Problem
It’s very fitting that Woo’s The Killer turned out to be a challenge in the same way that Ying and Jong fight against their bosses. Producer Tsui Hark did not see eye to eye with Woo. He’d not been pleased with the director’s previous works and aimed to shoot down many of his future ideas.
The Killer would suffer from many stipulations that Hark had for the film. In terms of the story, Hark thought that the cop should be given more attention than the killer, reasoning that audiences wouldn’t like a film about a hitman. Regarding the production, Hark refused to allow jazz in the soundtrack, feeling that Hong Kong audiences wouldn’t enjoy jazz. Jennie would’ve been singing jazz but instead sings Cantopop.
Despite all these restrictions, Hark’s meddling didn’t do much damage. Woo’s film still turned out great, but Hark’s lack of control over the project made him furious. The producer was rooting for this film to fail for going against much of his wishes. He would be proven wrong as the film became a massive hit, especially at festivals like Sundance and Cannes.
It should be noted that John Woo’s next big film, Hard Boiled (1992), featured a jazz soundtrack that fits perfectly. Considering how revered Hard Boiled became, Hark was also 100% wrong about jazz enhancing the film for audiences.
It’s not just Hark, though. Other Hong Kong filmmakers started feeling jealous of Woo’s international success. According to producer Terence Chang, the popularity of The Killer “created a certain kind of resentment in the Hong Kong film industry. One thing I can say for sure is, the American, European, Japanese, Korean and even the Taiwanese audiences and critics appreciated The Killer a lot more than it was in Hong Kong.”
The Inspiration of The Killer
Given the film’s popularity outside of Hong Kong, it’d be hard to pinpoint how influential The Killer has been in action movies. Luc Besson has found the film to be a great source of inspiration for his moody action pictures Nikita (1990) and Léon (1994). Robert Rodriguez would make visual homages to The Killer in his films (El Mariachi, Desperado, Once Upon A Time In Mexico), and Quentin Tarantino would reference The Killer in his screenplays (Jackie Brown).
The inspiration goes beyond film. The Wu-Tang Clan were big fans of the film and used dialog samples for their album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…. Woo was so impressed by the ode that he asked for no money for the album.
The Continuing Legacy
The fact that The Killer came about at the end of the 1980s felt like apt timing. The moodier and more meaningful action depicted in the film was exactly the burst of new inspiration needed for a new kind of action film to soar. Gunfights could be stylish and intense but also carry a greater sense of human themes amid the bullets and bravado.
Since the film’s release, there have been many failed attempts to remake The Killer. While talks continued for decades, the remake never materialized. Perhaps there didn’t need to be one considering how many fantastic action films it inspired.
There’s already so much acclaim for The Killer that it feels like there’s very little to add or rework for this perfect action picture. It garnered many accolades from the 9th Hong Kong Film Awards, numerous home video releases (including one by The Criterion Collection), and was cited by Time Out as one of the best action films ever made. It’s hard even to consider the film being remade, especially since the last news on this front was from 2019.
Usually, when an international film gets an English remake, it’s presented as either a straight adaptation or one that localizes the story more. But given that The Killer is so emblematic of Hong Kong cinema and has already been revered by those outside Hong Kong, there’s no need. The tale of brotherhood among bullets rang true enough for an international audience and remained one of the most exhilarating, moody, and inspirational action pictures ever put to film.