When I heard that the good folks at Dragon Dynasty released The Killer on DVD and Blu-ray March 30, I was excited; like many moviegoers my age (34, FYI), the 1990 opus was my first introduction to John Woo's singular filmmaking style, as well as the first time I heard the term "balletic" used to describe gunplay rather than, well, ballet. Since then, however, Woo's done a number of films that capitalized (both good and bad) on his pedigree as a top-notch purveyor of super-stylized violence; while he successfully brought his slo-mo, flying-dove filmmaking to America for a little while with Broken Arrow and Face/Off, the unfortunate culmination of his transition, Mission: Impossible II, seemed almost to be a parody of the techniques that first distinguished him as a filmmaker.
As such, it seemed like the right time to go back and see how much Woo's signature style held up today, particularly since so many young filmmakers found their own sense of visual flourish by taking inspiration from his. All of which is why The Killer is the subject of this week' "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released in Italy in 1989 before its eventual stateside release one year later, The Killer was John Woo's 19th film as a director or co-director. Starring his longtime leading man Chow Yun-Fat, the film followed a hit man and a harried cop who become confidantes even as the demands of their respective jobs threaten to make them adversaries. Although the film was not a commercial success upon its initial release in Hong Kong, American and international audiences warned to its glut of stylized violence and eventually hailed it as one of the most distinctive action films ever made. Meanwhile, the film won best director for Woo and best editing at the 1990 Hong Kong Film Awards.
What Still Works: There's no denying it's one of the most exciting and unique action movies ever made, and that's still immediately apparent from the very first scenes. Woo's mastery of technique is almost unsurpassed, and he finds inventive and visually interesting ways to turn standard-fare shootouts into something more dramatically compelling.
Meanwhile, both Chow Yun-Fat and co-star Danny Lee do a great job in their respective roles. Lee carries this sort of barely-contained rage that injects his character with a febrile, self-destructive kind of determination, while Chow exudes cool composition under pressure, with the notable and deliberate exceptions of his expressions of pain and betrayal. But it's really Woo's show: in 1989 his flourishes, such as the fluttering doves, freeze-frames and slow-motion cutaways all seem to happen for more meaningful reasons, while his homage to the filmmakers that inspired him – such as Chow's harmonica as a tribute to Sergio Leone – are understated but discernible.
What Doesn't Work: I'm not actually sure this "doesn't work," but the film's actual storytelling is a sort of intellectualized version of what a teenage action movie fan might want to see in a comprehensive, epic, pull-out-all-of-the-stops gunplay drama. From the conversations about modified guns to the use of at least two at all times to the gymnastic, dervishlike physicality of the heroes and villains alike, the action in this movie has been distilled to its most frenetic, its most exhilaratingly pure, and as a result there's little room for character development that isn't basically detailed plainly in dialogue.
Simultaneously, Woo almost literally fetishizes the idea of male camaraderie in his depiction of the growing bond between Chow's and Lee's characters; while it would probably not be overstating to point out the demonstrable, if according to Woo himself, unintentional homoeroticism between their characters, the film paints an idealized, romantic portrait of the bond that emerges between cop and killer – so much so, in fact, that at the moment at which the heroes enjoy a triumphant march from the church where they've found safe haven, the girl who Chow's character occasionally claims is important throughout the rest of the movie is nowhere to be found.
Again, however, this isn't necessarily bad, but it does render much of the film's conflict in these intellectually-intriguing but generally simplistic dimensions that may turn off audiences not immediately thrilled by its visual aspects.
What's The Verdict: I would say that for anyone familiar with the film or anyone who fell in love with it as a source of excitement or inspiration when it was first released, The Killer holds up like gangbusters. The action is impeccable and thrilling, the characterizations clean and simple but interesting because of the performances, and the overall cinematic experience is invigorating and cathartic and inspirational in a way that few movies today are. What really stood out to me the most on this viewing was the fact that it really felt like an articulation of a certain kind of filmmaking that I hadn't yet imagined at 17, but was waiting for it to exist, which is probably why I overlooked some of its sillier aspects in favor of seeing things I couldn't have even imagined.
At the same time, however, it doesn't require a dramatic amount of nostalgia or forgiveness; like watching a Leone movie after seeing hundreds of films that ripped his off, there's still a huge difference between an imitation and the pioneer doing the same or similar things, and Woo is almost unrivaled in taking that muscular, overwrought style and weaving something memorable and entertaining out of it.
(Editor's note: Because we didn't have the Blu-ray for comparison, I can say that based only on the DVD this version of The Killer is not a serviceable improvement on earlier versions. I never owned the Criterion DVD but I legally purchased a copy that turned out to be the Criterion transfer, and this video and audio quality does not improve upon pre-existing editions. Also, this one does not feature the Criterion commentary or the extras, so be aware of how much you love this film before you go out and purchase another edition.)