- Rated R
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All photos © Vivendi
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
very discussion about John Woo always seems to end with someone declaring “The Killer” to be the greatest action film of all time, but try making them watch the 1989 action thriller again and you might be surprised to discover that very few would actually stand by that statement. After all, Woo’s own “Hard Boiled” is a far superior film, and even that couldn’t be considered the best of the best. It’s still a great action flick, mind you, but for those who consider "The Killer" to be a masterpiece may want to take off those rose-colored glasses they're wearing and see it for what it really is.
Frequent Woo collaborator Chow Yun-Fat stars as Ah Jong, an assassin for hire who agrees to one last job in order to pay for the expensive cornea surgery needed to restore the vision of a lounge singer named Jennie (Sally Yeh) whom he accidentally blinded by gunfire during a previous mission. But when his cover is blown by police detective Li Ying (Danny Lee), Ah Jong’s employers decide it’s easier to kill him than worry about the assassination being traced back to them. With the triad hot on his trail, Ah Jong will do whatever it takes to get the money – even if it means going down in a hail of bullets to do so. Luckily, he's about to get some help from the last man he would have ever expected.
There isn’t any explanation why Li Ying would suddenly join forces with Ah Jong. Apart from his obvious respect for the code of honor that he lives by, it seems drastically out of character for someone so obsessed with catching bad guys. Ah Jong may not be an ordinary killer, but he’s a killer nonetheless, so why the free pass? It’s a major flaw in the story, and one that is made only more evident by the duo’s lack of onscreen chemistry. Unlike Tony Leung’s undercover cop in “Hard Boiled,” Lee fails to create a character worth caring about or rooting for. Meanwhile, Sally Yeh’s Jennie is little more than a one-dimensional damsel in distress, and Fui-On Shing's villain isn’t exactly menacing. Add to that a slow second act and an almost comical use of freeze frames, and you can see why "The Killer" isn't quite the masterpiece that it's purported to be.
Of course, the reason the movie has garnered such acclaim is because of Woo’s outrageously choreographed action sequences. For as over the top as his shootouts tend to be, the ones in “The Killer” are some of his most excessive. Guns rarely run out of bullets (and when they do, it isn’t until after they’ve fired off 30 or 40 rounds), while Ah Jong and Li Ying relentlessly unload entire clips into bad guys as if ammo was of no concern. They’re not quite as memorable as some of the set pieces in “Hard Boiled,” but watching Chow Yun-Fat blast his way through wave after wave of dime store baddies is tons of fun. That doesn’t change the fact that “The Killer” still doesn’t live up to its title as the greatest action film of all time, but it remains one of John Woo’s best.
Ultimate Edition DVD Review:
“The Killer” has been released on DVD more times than we care to count, so excuse us if we’re not blown away by Dragon Dynasty’s two-disc Ultimate Edition. Nevertheless, they’ve put together a respectable collection of bonus material including deleted scenes, an interview with director John Woo, and a short tour of the locations used in the film. Also included are Q&As for “The Killer” and “Hard Boiled” from Woo’s appearance at the American Cinematheque, as well as trailers for some of his films.