Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Killer

Written and Directed by: John Woo

The fact that John Woo's Hong Kong output remains largely out of print in America never fails to astound me. The vaunted action auteur hit big in the mid 80s with his action hit A Better Tomorrow (which wound up the highest-grossing Hong Kong film ever made at the time) and continued with a string of critically and internationally successful action melodramas before leaving for Hollywood in the wake of his last epic Hard-Boiled. For whatever reason, Woo never recaptured the spirit of his Hong Kong films when he moved to America, but film buffs the world over still love him for his classic work.

Of these films, The Killer ranks as his finest. His subsequent Vietnam War piece A Bullet in the Head is his most contemplative, and the aforementioned Hard-Boiled is his most action-packed (complete with a climactic 40-minute shootout in a hospital). Yet The Killer remains the finest distillation of Woo's talents, mixing ridiculously OTT action with melodrama and an overall message (there are a LOT of allusions to the Tienanmen Massacre) without letting any one aspect overpower the other.

Hot off the heels of A Better Tomorrow II, which Woo disowned following enforced reediting, the director brought his muse Chow Yun-Fat back to play yet another hired killer. This time, Chow is Ah Jong, an assassin who rethinks his profession with he accidentally blinds a young woman with the flash of his muzzle. Racked with guilt, he agrees to one last job in order to pay for a cornea transplant for Jennie

The Killer overflows with hallmarks of Woo's stories: Ah Jong is a noble killer, a police inspector (Danny Lee) must contend with the stifling bureaucracy of his job and the limits of the law in his attempts to bring criminals to justice and it all comes down to a massive shootout. Also on display are Woo's usual visual tricks, from gratuitous slow motion to rapid editing. And there's bullets. Lots and lots of bullets.

Ah Jong's final job is to kill a politician when he makes a speech. The scene unfolds with great tension thanks to Woo's precise use of music and disorienting cuts and makes a single gunshot as resonant as the extended shootouts. Unfortunately for Ah Jong, the police spot him and now the organization who uses his services decides to kill him for his slip-up. Now Ah Jong must worry about getting money for the operation, dodging cops and dealing with the waves of criminals coming after him.

Woo alternates between the action scenes and the more dramatic moments with a deftness severely lacking in his other work; he manages to make the tender scenes between Ah Jong and Jennie and Inspector Ying's personal story interesting and relevant rather than making the audience feel like we're just being given a breather between action sequences.

The ending climax unfolds in a good old-fashioned Mexican shootout, complete with church. It's not as visually resplendent as the epic hospital sequence of Hard-Boiled, but it's nonetheless a textbook example of Woo's mastery of action and his ability to keep an audience thoroughly captivated. How did Hollywood rob him of this talent?

The final moments, possibly the most affecting in Woo's oeuvre, ensure the film as the director's best. Ah Jong, who teamed up with Ying for the shootout, tells his unlikely ally to use his eyes for the transplant should he die. But a sadistic attack from one of the head criminals leaves Ah Jong himself blind. The long shot of Ah Jong and Jennie, both now blind, crawling around searching for each other is absolutely devastating; I don't know if I can think of a single more genuinely emotional shot in an action movie (Seven Samurai excluded, which is too innovative to fit in any one genre).

In the credits, Woo dedicates the film to Martin Scorsese. Rather appropriate, considering this is perhaps the only gangster film remotely as visceral and gripping as Scorsese' GoodFellas. Woo's films may come off as a bit too melodramatic for Western audiences (I certainly thought so when I first went through his Hong Kong output), they work magnificently as bloody pop operas. It may glamorize violence a bit more than Scorsese's more horrifying bloodbaths, but Woo uses it for the same reason: to cleanse flawed, often evil or at least criminal characters in a violent catharsis worthy of Flannery O'Connor. In short, The Killer is nothing short of a masterpiece, and one of the top five action movies ever made.

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