Review by Trylon contract assassin Ben Schmidt
The Killer isn’t the only killer in The Killer. This ‘89 entry into John Woo’s filmography also features a tough cop who plays by his own rules, and a washed-up Triad who serves as the Killer’s mentor and friend. But as this story of regret, betrayal, and redemption unfolds, it quickly becomes clear why Chow-Yun Fat is so deserving of the titular role.
More on that in a moment. First, let’s shovel some plot:
The film begins in a church filled with many candles and many pigeons. The Killer waits here, enjoying the calmness and stillness, as his friend arrives with a job. Luckily, someone needs to be killed, so the Killer goes off to kill him.
We arrive at a nightclub. The Killer enters and makes his way past a young lady, a singer, towards the back of the club where bad guys and their henchmen are wont to reside. The Killer kills his way to his target, kills his target, then begins to kill his way out of the club. Ain’t no thang, until that young singer flees right into the line of fire.
That sucks because up until this point the Killer was doing a pretty super job. To his credit, Woo (who also wrote the script) doesn’t waste our time having characters monologue about how good the Killer is. We witness it. Head held back, pistol pointed down and away at a particular angle, Yun Fat’s Killer exudes an oddly precise physicality as he moves and turns and dives and fires through oodles of bad guys. In mere moments, we believe he’s the best. And it’s this performance, in the context of Woo’s direction, that keeps things engaging.
It’s during the last, tense moments of this literal shoot-out that the Killer errs, firing a pistol, point-blank, directly in front of the young woman’s face. This split second reaction leaves the two alive, but her corneas badly damaged. We later learn this injury will lead to permanent blindness if the young singer does not quickly receive an expensive operation.
This leaves our Killer racked with guilt. He begins to frequent the (other?) nightclub where she (Jennie) sings for a living. A thwarted mugging brings them closer. Soon the Killer is attempting to carry out one last hit in order to pay for her eye surgery; an attempt to make things right fuels the entire latter half of the film.
Through it all, it’s easy to focus only on all the stunts and gunnery on display in The Killer. They’re the makings of a reputation that’s always preceded John Woo. But to focus only on bullets is to ignore half of what’s so enjoyable about The Killer. The other half makes up the wondrous, weirder side of John Woo (a side that seems much rarer in his later work). Like the random freeze frames that occur throughout the film, often while two characters are just chatting away. Or the prune-colored, sniping-from-boat disguise perfectly complemented by a salt-and-pepper fake mustache. Or “Shrimp Head” and the face/off in Jennie’s apartment that manages to be both tense and ridiculous. Or poor, surprisingly-stabbed-not-shot-right-in-the-back guy.
Woo’s film ends up feeling like a musical in that it unfolds completely at the mercy of its own logic and rhythm. That being said, your ability to enjoy the screening largely relies on your willingness to relax and follow Woo’s lead.
For this is not a writer/director concerned with whether or not you agree that handsome, legendary Triad assassins should unwind with a combination of star-gazin’ and harmonica playin’. In this film they most certainly DO. And that’s as off-kilter as it is fantastic.
Much like The Killer itself. — Ben Schmidt
THE KILLER screens Monday and Tuesday, July 27 and 28 at 7:00 and 9:15. Advance tickets are $8:00 and you can purchase them here.