“The Killer” marks probably the best Yun-Fat/Woo team up as star/director, respectively. After the runaway success of “A Better Tomorrow,” the two men became international sensations, and “The Killer” solidified their reputations for all time.
“The Killer,” while being more of the same ol same ol — balletic gunplay and the ever-present theme of loyalty and trust — is a superior film that continues to be the benchmark for all Hitman-Gangster films to come after it, in Hong Kong and everywhere else. Unlike his character in “Hard-Boiled” (another Woo/Yun-Fat collaboration), Fat’s character is a hitman, and Danny Lee, the “buddy” in this cop-buddy flick, is the relentless cop who pursues him. The premise is relatively easy to follow: after blinding a cabaret singer during a botched hit, Chow spends the rest of his life trying to make amends for the mistake. Besides falling in love with the singer (Sally Yeh), Chow also learns the value of having a friend you can trust with your life, even if that friend is wearing a badge and has a gun pointed at your head.
If there is one over-arching theme in all of Woo’s movies (even his American productions) it’s the unflappable belief of brotherhood and loyalty through thick and thin. Critics have often scoff at Woo’s notion of “brotherly loyalty,” but love it or leave it, this is a Woo trademark, and a familiar theme in many Asian films. Take the Chinese Confucius’ theme of filial piety (putting one’s loyalty and obedience to one’s family over all else) that is prevalent in all Asian life.
In Woo’s movies, the “family” can be anything — the bond between partners, between friends, or the family of a gang (as in “Once a Thief”) or between a cop and his would-be target as is the case in “The Killer” and again in “Hardboiled.” It’s all about friendship and loyalty and how one goes about keeping the ties that bind without getting killed in the process. Woo’s movies are about walking that tightrope.
In “The Killer,” after he blinds the singer, Chow sets out on a struggle of epic proportions to get enough money through any means necessary to take the singer to America where she can get corneal implants (I have no idea if this would actually work, but there you have it). Saving her sight would in turn redeem him for not only blinding her, but for all his crimes of the past. She is his salvation, and no one knows it more than him, even if he never says it out loud. In that sense, his blinding her is the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Or at least, to his soul.
The loyalty theme in “Killer” actually involves what could be called a “friendship” triangle. In one corner is Chow, the cold-blooded hitman; in the other, Danny Lee as the cop pursuing him; and in the third corner, Chow’s broker (the man who arranges his hits). After being betrayed by the mob and his own broker, Chow sets off to rid the world of the mobsters, but not before getting his money. The money becomes the symbol of his crusade, and getting it means everything to him — even at the cost of his own life, if need be. And in true Woo fashion, that obsession takes its toll on everyone involve.
“The Killer” astounds with its heavy dose of style and substance. Although things do get a bit out of hand toward the end (the final shootout at a church comes to a mind), the film maintains an even level of coolness and kinetic action. For sheer bloodbath, bodycount, and flying bullets, “The Killer” has yet to be topped by any director, Asian or otherwise.
John Woo (director) / John Woo (screenplay)
CAST: Yun-Fat Chow …. John Chow
Danny Lee …. Inspector Li
Sally Yeh …. Jennie