Film Reviews:

The Killer

(John Woo, HK, 1992)

The Killer is an amazingly violent action movie filled with shoot outs and stand offs, but beneath the gun metal sheen beats a soft, romantic heart. Unlike cynical US action films, this Hong Kong movie takes the more generous worldview that surrounded by corruption, men of honour not only still exist, but recognise one another, even when nominally on opposing sides. Many American movies reveal previously trustworthy characters as deceitful opposition agents. The Killer suggests the opposite: morality can be found unexpectedly, even in a murderer. The story is appropriated from Jean Pierre Melville's film Le Samourai allowing director John Woo to explore the opposing yet entwined characters of Killer (Chow Yun Fat) and Cop (Danny Lee). A hitman accidentally partially blinds an innocent woman. Ashamed, he shadows her, protecting and eventually befriending her. To pay for a sight-saving operation, he agrees to a last hit. A rogue cop is assigned to find and stop the assassin, but soon discovers the Killer's values echo his own.

On first viewing, many will notice only violence. Indefensible as narrative necessity, this is violence as directorial virtuosity, as smartly choreographed as a Fred and Ginger routine, but with machine guns. A collision of speeded up climaxes from a dozen movies, the correlation is so stylistically abstracted as to have little correlation to reality. Chow Yun Fat, a gun in each fist, shoots a victim between the eyes simply for an overture. He follows up by pumping the already dead man with several thousand rounds from both guns. This is sheer fantasy. The film is filled with, but not fascinated by guns. Instead of obsessing over details, guns are used solely for effect. In Woo's universe, guns only empty when it is most dramatically expedient for them to do so. The Killer is not a typical macho gun flick. Cop and Killer are unlikely heroes, men of conscience, touchingly determined to do only what is just. This attitude singles Woo out as a true romantic, capable of believing that even in adversity, courage, heroism and love will carry the day. In the pamphlet accompanying the 'extra scenes' version of the video release, Woo says: "To me, The Killer is like a romantic poem...I always worship the chivalrous behaviour of ancient Chinese knights...That is the spirit I wished to portray". He succeeds, every successive viewing yields more subtleties of character and motive.

Not violence, but the relationship between policeman and hitman forms the core of the film. Initially opposites, links are soon apparent: the hitman follows his own code of ethics, his victims are corrupt politicians. The cop deplores protecting the same politicians. It's soon apparent that they are only on opposing sides due to the interests of unworthy superiors. They become friends, give each other nicknames. Despite several scenes in which they push gun barrels into each others faces, this is not repressed homosexuality. If love, it is purely narcissistic, for they're so alike as to be merely facets of one personality. They are unable to shoot each other, so evenly matched that whenever they draw guns, the timing is as perfect as mirror images. Woo hides softness behind set pieces of mass slaughter. The Killer has been released (in the UK) uncut and letterboxed by the Made in Hong Kong label. The print is in excellent condition, and looks great. There is a more expensive boxed version, with extra scenes. This adds little, other than: an unwieldy pasteboard box (within which the tape is unboxed), a slim pamphlet (containing an interesting introduction by the director, some stills, a filmography), and about ten minutes of footage with varying subtitle styles, taken from the twenty minutes or so longer Taiwanese print. These extra scenes come after the film proper has ended, divided by blue inter-titles describing where they should have been. The Taiwanese version has been disowned by Woo as a working cut, and the six scenes presented are uninteresting, the best being a credibility stretching second attack on the blind singer. The subtitles are from the initial US laserdisc release, and render nicknames 'Shrimp' and 'Little Brother' as 'Mickey Mouse' and 'Dumbo'. The new Voyager laserdisc renders the nicknames as the truly terrible 'Butthead' and 'Numb-Nuts'! The Killer remains a masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema that is well worth investigating. It is ironic that Woo is now compelled to tone down the violence for the American market.

Adrian Horrocks

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