The Killer (1989)

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*. The star of John Woo burned brightly through the 1990s. He even successfully made the jump from Hong Kong to Hollywood at this time. Today I wonder how many younger action-movie fans even know his name.
*. I’d like to say he’s a great action director, but I might limit this even more and say he’s great at directing gunfights. Of which this movie has many spectacular instances.
*. Spectacular and ridiculous. And clichéd. As in good guys who can’t miss, even firing pistols in both hands while flying through the air, while the bad guys can’t hit the broad side of a barn with automatic weapons from point-blank range. Or the way bad guys are knocked off their feet and blown backward when they get hit while the good guys only get flesh wounds that can be dressed up later with a bit of battlefield surgery and teeth clenching.
*. I guess this is all a debt to Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, complete with the slow-motion overkill and a seemingly inexhaustible number of squibs. I did, however, wonder why, if Ah Jong is such a pro, he had to keep emptying his guns into people, firing them a dozen times at people who are already dead. That seemed unnecessary.
*. What makes Woo’s gunfights so good is how they’re set up visually. An action film, like any genre film really, is like a still life: it’s all just a matter of arranging the various familiar elements on the table in an interesting and attractive way.
*. Of course the classic scene here is the “Mexican standoff” between the two leads in Jennie’s apartment. They don’t even have to fire their guns for it to work, in a way both funny and suspenseful. Though it’s also obvious that the two men like each other so much they won’t shoot to kill.

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*. Also very good is the showdown in the hospital, which makes good use of the curtains and the doctors trying to save the child’s life without being distracted by what’s going on behind them.
*. Does Woo go to the well too often with the gunplay however? The Mexican standoff occurs three different times. And has there ever been a movie with so many scenes of guns being pointed at people? I like how in the church battle at the end the Mexican standoff is reversed and Inspector Li Ying (Danny Lee) and Ah Jong (Chow Yun-fat) stand back-to-back, but overall a pointed gun is an easy way to ratchet up the tension and you really can overdo it.

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*. I don’t care for the church setting at the end. Is Ah Jong religious at all, or is it just a convenient place to hide out? How realistic is it that there are so many candles? And what’s with the pigeons? Who let them in? Wouldn’t the church be filled with pigeon shit? I suppose they’re symbolic of something, but as with the gun play it seems a lazy way of getting such an effect.
*. It struck me as weird that Jennie was going to have to go to America to get her cornea transplant. I thought you could pretty much get anything you wanted in Hong Kong if you had the money, whereas America actually has some rules and regulations concerning such things.
*. The ending is quite downbeat, isn’t it? Not only do Ah Jong and Jennie crawl past each other but Li Ying is presumably about to be arrested for killing the mob boss and Jennie is now permanently blind.
*. Of course hell hath no fury like a gangster double-crossed. We know that from the endless string of Parker-style films (Point Blank and its progeny). An even more pervasive theme in the genre, however, is that of the changing of the guard. “The world has changed,” Ah Jong says to his old friend. Gone is the ethical code of honour, trust, and respect. All that’s left is that angry nephew and his army of mooks. They don’t believe in anything.
*. This is a universal theme — the conservative view that everything is going to hell and young people today have no respect for their elders and the way things used to be done — but I’m not sure why it has adhered for so long to gangster films. It’s there from the beginning and the gangster films of the ’30s, through The Godfather, and well after. It’s the moral behind gangsterism: that it always involves a downward spiral of violence, of revenge and one-upmanship, as the next generation struggles to take and hold power. The charisma of the leader is inextricably linked to his cruelty and ruthlessness, his humanity only a weakness to be exploited. Of course Ah Jong shouldn’t have bothered himself with poor Jennie’s case. It is for this he must be punished in rather obvious fashion (that is, blinded himself).
*. As with the superficial invocation of religion, however, I don’t think this means a lot to Woo. He’s mainly interested in having waves of people being torn apart in prolonged gun battles. There are some great set-piece scenes here — the apartment, the hospital, the airport — and a pair of likeable leads. Today it seems mostly unremarkable, but that may be due to imitation and saturation, or the prominence it gives to its noisiest but least interesting parts.

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