No one has ever shot an action movie the way John Woo has done so: if anything were to prove it, then The Killer comes a long way. With a film like The Killer, John Woo takes the action genre and turns it into something with the gracefulness of a poem put into play. But there was always a certain wonder that John Woo had carried when he offered his own spin on the action genre that allowed him to stand out – and it’s not one that is limited to the frenetic nature of his display of gunplay or his symbolic doves, but there’s a greater heart that can be felt and it’s the sort of soul only the best action films would ever carry to the best of their ability. What appears only as an exhilarating action piece at first soon turns out to be something more poignant in the best sense, as expected of John Woo during his early Hong Kong period.
Woo sets up a motivation quite clear for our protagonist Ah Jong during the opening sequence. We are introduced to Chow Yun-Fat as Ah Jong inside of a church, a place of serenity. He is given one last job, but while he’s out on his mission as the frenetic gunplay begins, he accidentally blinds a nightclub singer whom he falls in love with. This is where one of Woo’s most notable skills finds itself at play: a balance between peacefulness and chaos through setting and music, but at the center he has a melodrama that forms the soul of the film. Yet it is a quality that allows all of the best action films to stand out and it is common even for Hollywood’s features, but how exactly is John Woo’s The Killer one that distances itself from the lot and stands apart on its own? It only comes from how John Woo assembles such a balance in order to create a subversion of the familiar tropes by distorting what we think we know already.
Ah Jong becomes friends with a detective, Li Ying, who is assigned to be capturing him. Li’s obsession with Ah Jong’s intent fuels the soul for he sees good will coming about and not only does it form a chemistry between two insanely likable leads giving incredible performances (one among many action tropes that John Woo brings in with an incredible level of self-awareness), but it only hints at the direction that Woo is interested in taking the film as a means of contrasting what we think we are set to see coming forth. John Woo’s spin on heroic bloodshed is one that pays its respect to what action lovers know they will love most, but if something allowed The Killer to stand as firmly as it does, it would be from how Woo’s most evident loves are being put into play and they always deliver spectacularly. A sympathetic criminal in Ah Jong seeks his redemption after what he has been doing for a living, building up to the tragedy it pulls out.
One cannot go without praising a John Woo film for its action sequences but they are only a small factor for the most exciting moments of The Killer. What John Woo takes out of an action film instead finds a sense of serenity that allows one to intake beauty even with the most frenetic gunplay being poised onto the screen, whether it be from how he mixes in relaxing music so beautifully or how he paces every moment to go along. It’s easy enough to praise how beautifully they are choreographed or how excellently they flow thanks to the editing, but looking into what sort of poetry he can form from the genre is another story for John Woo’s touch on action cinema is something of its very own. He has an eye for what he knows viewers find to be glorious amidst these works but at the same time he also exposes a beauty found within the chaos. If The Killer could not ever be any more glorious from there, then the least of its wonders haven’t been touched yet.
It might be from how John Woo directs the film to appear where the many wonders of The Killer are coming about. Although it has an eye for exploiting what people know they will recognize for what they love most about action films all throughout, it uses these elements in order to create something that would still play to a haunting effect. Many over-the-top gun fights, Mexican standoffs, chases, amidst all the chaos on display yet mixed together with a sense of serenity as I’ve mentioned in a prior paragraph, something that always was beautiful within the works of John Woo. It never feels dignified amidst glorifying violence but rather instead as it places its characters amidst the mayhem, it creates a great impact after John Woo’s sense of peacefulness comes into play as present in his music choices or how the melodrama is established: everything that only the finest of action cinema can stand for.
The Killer is a beautiful film, one that never fails even at getting me in tears after the horror on display. From the tragic arcs on display and how they move along with the leading characters or John Woo’s ability to form serenity in mayhem, The Killer finds itself a haunting sort of action film. Action junkies know already what they will praise upfront about The Killer but it is the very least of what John Woo is able to form on the spot, he shows a tale of guilt and desire and where it takes people who are already amongst dangerous positions within their life. It may seem cheesy for some although there’s an incredible sense of self-awareness on John Woo’s end that ever so elevates The Killer inside of its power. It takes what we know most about action films and turns that into a poem, one about a sense of peace to be found amidst chaos, almost akin in a sense to retaining sanity from the haunting effects war can leave behind on the human soul.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Film Workshop.
Directed by John Woo
Screenplay by John Woo
Produced by Tsui Hark
Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Chu Kong, Kenneth Tsang, Shing Fui-On
Release Year: 1989
Running Time: 110 minutes