The Killer (1989, John Woo)

When The Killer introduces second-billed Danny Lee, it certainly seems like Lee’s arc is going to be the most important in the film. He’s a Hong Kong cop who starts chasing professional hitman Chow Yun-fat and gets in the middle of Chow’s fight with crime lord Shing Fui-on, with tragic results for everyone involved.

And while the film does track Lee’s perception of Chow over the film, it never tries to reconcile the Lee of the first act—who’s just shot a suspect dead on a crowded passenger tram, resulting in the death of a civilian—with the sidekick who has to figure out how to accept Chow into his moral system. Woo spends a lot of time on the burgeoning friendship between the two men, but only one of them is an unrepentant killer. Chow’s only ever in trouble because he cares when innocent people get killed. Lee just yells at the review board about he’s done it before and he’s going to do it again.

The internal character discrepancy doesn’t seem intentional—Lee’s cop seemingly just doesn’t believe in collateral damage, while it’s all Chow thinks about, whether it’s nightclub singer Sally Yeh or another bystander who gets shot while Chow’s trying to escape Shing’s goons. But it definitely adds something to the film, especially after Lee’s sort of revealed as an erstwhile alpha male who desperately wants to play sidekick to a real alpha (Chow). I’d be surprised if there’s twenty minutes of non-non-stop action in The Killer, but most of it is dedicated to Lee’s man-crushing.

All of the action is great. Woo’s direction, Fan Kung-wing’s editing, the sound, the music. Yes, the movie wouldn’t last more than two minutes of its present action if Chow’s guns weren’t on infinite ammo mode—the only time anyone ever runs out of bullets is for dramatic purpose, otherwise even when we watch Lee load a revolver with six shots, he’s got at least ten or more. I don’t think Lee’s revolvers ever actually run out of bullets, the scenes just end.

Lee’s pursuit of Chow also involves older cop, Kenneth Tsang, who’s Lee’s sidekick. The film juxtaposes Tsang and Chu Kong (Chow’s handler and best friend) as the two beta males–being a beta is whole arc for Chu—but also it turns out Lee’s not so much an alpha as a beta who just hasn’t found the right alpha. He thinks Chow’s the alpha. The Killer is technically a buddy action movie, but Lee and Chow don’t really do anything but kill bad guys together. And lots of them. When they team up, it’s thirty against two, whereas the earlier action sequences have Chow and Lee, independently, facing off against a more reasonable number. Like ten guys. Five to ten. You lose count. The goons rarely live for longer than a few seconds (save Shing and Ricky Yi Fan-wai, the super-hitman Shing has to hire to kill super-hitman Chow).

Meanwhile, Chow’s trying to help Yeh get a cornea transplant—he had to put a gun right in her face to shoot a goon—and it’s all tied up with Shing and Chu. The film’s cagey about Chow’s relationship with Yeh; it’s definitely protective and often seems romantic, but Woo intentionally keeps it opaque. And even though Yeh figures into the second act a whole bunch—she’s Lee’s pawn for a good portion of it—she doesn’t have much of a character. She’s a girl so she can’t participate in Lee and Chow’s gleeful chases, where they grin at getting to play with someone almost as cool as them. Well, at least until Lee realizes Chow’s the real deal.

Chu’s arc is probably the best in the film—it doesn’t avoid anything like Chow’s or Lee’s—with a couple great twists, which reveal layers to what’s come before. Great performance from Chu. Probably the best acting in the film. But it’s hard to say best performance in the film because Chow is transfixing. Yes, Woo showcases him to be transfixing but it works because it’s Chow. He’s inscrutable until you realize he’s not, which should make it harder on Chow (and Woo), but instead it’s just better once he’s revealed. The Killer doesn’t have a lot to be obvious about because it’s a pretty simple narrative with a lot of lengthy action sequences to eat up the run time, but its eventual sincerity is incredibly affecting.

Great music from Lowell Lo. The music does a lot of the heavy lifting on that sincerity. The music and Fan’s editing. The main song (sung by Yeh), which quite literally haunts her and Chow, is perfect.

The Killer’s outstanding. A little bit Western (especially the buddy flick aspect), a little bit noir, an unbelievably amount of blood squibs, it’s a spectacular, transcendent action movie.

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