Saturday, July 3, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: The Killer

The Killer (1989, John Woo)

We stay in the Far East for a little longer during this Homemade Summer Movie Marathon and take a look at one of Hong Kong’s greatest directors, and of the best action directors ever, John Woo. During the late 80s to early 90s Woo’s films became international hits. Audiences in both the East and West were thrilled with his confident, melodramatic (in the fun sense) and action-packed style which infused his films with a terrific sense of style that people hadn’t quite seen before. One of his favourite collaborators for these movies was actor Chow-Yun Fat (Yun-Fat Chow, depending on who your speaking with), who was the star in most of them.

In The Killer, Fat plays an assassin for hire Ah Jong who, during first hit job we see him execute in the film, badly injures a night club singer’s (Jenny, played by Sally Yeh) eye sight. Being an assassin who follows a moral code (Obviously. No other sort of hit men exist anyways, we all know that), Ah Jong chooses to repay his deep debt to Jenny by becoming something of a semi-guardian, semi-boyfriend to her, all the while never revealing his true identity as the one who caused her sad condition. Shortly after this incident, Ah Jong is commissioned one final job before sailing off into the sunset: the murder of an unlikable politician during a dragon race event. The mission unexpectedly turns sour, and suddenly his employers are out to kill him (without payment either. Damn it!), as is Hong Kong inspector Li Ying, played by the awesome Danny Lee. His only ally, besides to virtually blind Jenny, is his old friend from within the gang, Fung Sei (Chu Kong). What happens next is a roller coaster ride that will push all these characters to the very limits of what they can sustain, both physically and emotionally.

I suppose I fall into the same camp as most people who enjoy John Woo films. Whenever he has worked in his native land, whatever he touched turned to gold. However, once he ventured into the Hollywood system, things were not so rosy anymore, with a series of quite laughable efforts (Broken Arrow, for example) which truly were not worthy of his directorial prowess. The Killer showcases the John Woo we all know in his prime, pushing his aesthetic tastes to phenomenal boundaries. In one of the interviews on the Blu-ray I watched, the director explained how it was important for him to inject a great variety of genre elements into the story as was possible. Rather than create something that was pure action, he wanted a romance film, a bromance film, a commentary on human nature, comedy, and of brick tons of action. But even those action sequences were not going to be filmed according to the norm. Slow motion was to be used to heighten the dramatic effect of bodies being riddled with bullets and those little squiggles of blood giggling out of the ripped skin. Say what you will of what slow-motion action sequences have transformed into in our day and age of action films, but Woo certainly knew how to make a gun fight feel dangerous and a bullet wound feel excruciatingly painful. I hadn’t seen any early Woo films in quite some time and I suspect that I had become somewhat desensitized to the potential effectiveness of good old fashioned shootouts.

When, in the opening minutes of the film, Ah Jong knocks on the door of where his target is located and one the latter’s bodyguards answers, it is but the beginning of an especially violent ballet of death and destruction. Even that first unsuspecting sorry sap who opens the door for Ah Jong gets it really good, but the others will soon unequivocally receive their comeuppance. The quality of the camera work and the superb job by the actors and stunt men during these action set pieces make for a highly entertaining blood festival. I honestly found myself saying ‘Oh!’ and ‘Shit!’ on a couple of occasions when people were going down, even if they were the supposed villains of the film. That has to mean something, because I haven’t being saying ‘Oh!’ or ‘Shit!’ very often when going to see action films at the multiplexes in recent years. There is a moment when Ah Jong reaches his target, awards the man a few seconds to contemplate his approaching death, shoots him in the head and then proceeds to fire two or three bullets in his chest! This is not PG-13 stuff.

As for the elements of romance, bromance, comedy and the like, I’d still argue that Woo does a capable job of handling them as well. Subtlety is not the name of the game, especially when one considers that the final shootout transpires in a church with statues of the Virgin Mary getting blown to smithereens with rocket pistols, or whatever the heck those were. A lot of the character-driven elements are delivered in style akin to what cinefiles consider ‘melodramatic.’ This is a term that has earned itself a negative connotation in recent times, but when certain aspects of a film are tweaked correctly, then the melodrama can still produce some reactions from an audience. In the case of The Killer, it is the presence of the actors that brought that sense of respectability. Chow-Yun Fat and Danny Lee are a great pair and work off one another in clever fashion throughout. They bring an intelligence and a nice dramatic weight to their respective characters which I appreciated a lot. They both follow a code of honour even though they are on opposite sides of the law, and therefore when they come into conflict, leading to a delicious game of cat and mouse. There are moments when all their skills and wits are put to the test, with the results sometimes being thrilling and other times quite funny, which, again, comes back to this notion of Woo wanting to play around with several tones and moods for his individual movies.

The Killer brings many of the quintessential John Woo signatures to the fore, such as slow motion, melodrama, and even some pigeons who seem to know just when and where to fly by in order to give a scene that extra little pigeon-like ‘oomph!’ I’m being facetious about that last point of course, but I am more than sincere about everything else I’ve written in this review of the film. The Killer, for all its elements that people accustomed to early 21st century action movies might find silly and intentionally funny, is quite a fun little movie and reinforces the argument that Chow-Yun Fat is an indelible action movie star.


Anonymous said...

While Woo is a great action director, his attempts at drama in this film are laughably bad. It's just too excessive and over-the-top when it comes to the drama and love story. While that might work for his action setpieces, it doesn't work for making us care about and connect with characters and that, to me, makes The Killers one of Woo's lesser offerings.

edgarchaput said...

I touch on that point briefly when I wrote about the presence of the actors. Chow-Yun Fat and Danny Lee, as actors and by their personalities, give their respective characters enough for me to like them. Did I care deeply for them? No, but I was comfortable with the actors enough to want to see their story conclude.