Movie Review: The Killer

Posted: August 17, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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The Killer (1989 Golden Princess Dir. John Woo)

Really, we’re going to do The Killer? We want to go to that one? We don’t have some obscure shoot ‘em up that no one has seen? Out of cheap westerns already? Actually, we just did one, so probably don’t want to do another for a while lest I be known as the “Cheap Westerns Guy” which would kill my stab at being the “Doesn’t Like Anything New Guy” for the internet. I suppose I should explain my reluctance before we go much further. I like John Woo’s movies, but I don’t like them in their entirety. There are a lot of problems with John Woo, like he really, really wants to make a romance but keeps making gun operas that are like old-fashioned westerns. I wish he’d just make a romantic western and get it out of his system. Possibly, he wants to make a gay romance, but can’t come to terms with it and has to have the guys shooting at each other. There is an undercurrent of homoerotic bromanceness about his movies, after all. Another problem is that he’s another one of these guys who keeps wanting to have his movies run about 9 hours long, forgetting that he’s making commercial action movies. So a lot of what he thinks the movie is supposed to be ends up on the cutting room floor, which is never a good thing. Anytime you have to cut a movie in half, it looses coherency. What I’m saying is, that while I like The Killer, I’m afraid that in reviewing it I’m going to end up vivisecting it and just point out all its flaws to the world. However, this is the movie I’ve slatted for this week and if I don’t review it I’ll be going back on what I said I’d do, so here we go.




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Cool hero walks around, being cool.

Quick note. I was going to use the new Dragon Dynasty DVD for this review, but it’s four minutes shorter and uses a different set of credits than my other copies. I’m not sure what’s different in this version, because I haven’t watched them side by side or anything. IMDB says that the R-Rated cut is 104 minutes, this is 106, but every other version I have is 111. I already knew that DD totally dropped the ball on the Blu Ray, so I just bought the standard def DVD in order to make some clean screen caps when I reviewed this, but even that’s annoying because the credits are completely different and ugly as hell. I hate to complain about the DVD, but this should have been given so much more love. It should have been the greatest disc Dragon Dynasty ever released, the one that could have put them on top, and it’s just not. The real problem though, is that the video is bad. Interlaced crap, can’t use it for screen caps at all. I tried, but it just will not do. So, back to Criterion’s letterboxed 4:3 fake widescreen we go. I’ll crop out the black bars, you’ll never know the difference, I just wanted to complain.

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In Hong Kong they shoot you in the crotch for bringing cold coffee.

The Killer is a movie about two men who, while at odds with each other, are very similar and share a unique, somewhat homoerotic, but totally not gay bond. Or to put it more succinctly, The Killer is a John Woo movie. Seriously. If you’ve seen one or two of his films, you’ve probably noticed that they are like Brokeback Mountain with handguns. Sometimes the two main characters are always against each other (Face Off, MI:2) but most the time they are either old friends or they become friends as the story progresses. It frankly follows all the patterns of a romance, only it’s all manly and they shoot guns instead of trade smooches. This effect even includes the death of one of the main characters because the old Hollywood law demands that at least one of the gays must die. This is actually a Trope, if you’re interested. Hard Boiled subverts this pattern, but only because the cast and crew begged for the character to live resulting in Woo letting that character survive. So… yeah, spoiler warning, one of the main characters dies in this. Then again, a lot of people die in this. Some have said it’s wrong to ascribe such homoerotic overtones to these movies, and maybe their right, but to some extent it’s there. I will say that it’s probably more that some people are looking for it, rather than it being that obvious. I’m not going to harp on the supposed homoerotic angle, but it tends to be a part of the John Woo effect and we should at least mention it.

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You can always tell a screencap taken right after Chow Yun Fat has fired a gun because his eyes are closed.

I refuse to do a point-by-point run down of this movie because it would make the film sound really kind of crap. This is one of those movies that are better seen than described, because while a lot of the movie is action based, there are some good performances in here. It would be easy to attack a lot of this movie, particularly since some of the plot points don’t make any damn sense. However, the faults in the movie, and there are many, are over shadowed by the style of the direction and the actors involved. However, if one goes in there with the cold calculating hand of an internet reviewer looking for something to make fun of, one can find a gold mine of problems here. I’ll get back to that in a moment, but for now just trust me. As I say though, the people involved are so good that you can let go of those issues and just go with it. They have to be good because like Italy, Hong Kong movies of this era didn’t record sound. They would dub in dialogue later, but a lot of the emotion of a scene had to be conveyed through physical acting.

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This guy is one of the secondary characters. There’s nothing funny about this cap, I just wanted to show him because he’s part of the plot.

The movie, in broad terms is about Chow Yun Fat’s character, a hit man call Ah Jong. He’s usually called Jeffery in the subtitles, but the last few DVDs have managed to get his name right. He accidentally blinds a singer named Jennie in a shoot out at the beginning of the movie. Wracked with guilt he follows her until he saves her from some muggers and becomes part of her life. In order to pay for a transplant to give Jennie her eyesight back, Ah Jong agrees to a job which turns into a massive hairball. His bosses betray and try to kill him, he then hides out and tries to get his money while avoiding police and triads. All the while, a police detective chases after him, catches up to him and becomes the person he wishes he could quit. The movie ends in one big guntastic tribute to Butch and Sundance with a shoot out in a church where our two heroes defend against a bajillion badguys. That’s the movie in a nutshell, without going too deep into things and skipping most the major plot points. That makes this a short review, so instead of heading off for a congratulatory drink, I’ll talk about what does and doesn’t work here.

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Does Guan Yu hafta cut a bitch?

The movie is heavily influenced by things like Le Samouraï and Mean Streets. You can see some plot pieces lifted specifically from Le Samouraï, which is one of the things that causes trouble for me. The triad bosses claim that they’re trying to kill Ah Jong for revealing his identity after the killing. The problem is that they try to kill him about five minutes after he shoots the guy, so they had planned to kill him. The excuse doesn’t even work because he didn’t even hint at revealing himself. In Le Samouraï, it works because Jef was arrested and spent hours at the police station, who knows what he said to who? In this, they try to kill Ah Jong the minute he gets back, there was no time for paranoia to spring up. As an excuse, it makes no sense. What else fails to work? Some of the performances are a little over wrought. One might go so far to call them melodramatic. One might complain that the characters are drawn from stock without much in the way of alteration. This is not a film of great subtlety, but for the most part you let that one go because the people are fairly good actors. This isn’t supposed to be naturalistic, it’s supposed to be a bit epic, a bit over the top and the characters are supposed to be the sort of people you can slap easy labels on. Yes, you’ve got The Cop, The Girl, The Mentor, The Boss and most importantly The Killer. Most HK fancs understand this going in. However, for someone coming in for the first time it can be off-putting.

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This is so totally going to be on the back of every dvd box!

There are also times when the action scenes just seem to go on forever. The reason here is that Woo and company just sort of did the movie on the fly. They added more bits of action, giving the stunt men more work, without any really sense of how well this would work for the movie. As a result, there are times when the film starts to get a video game feel to it, as wave after wave of henchmen come charging in just to get mowed down. I often get to asking the fifth or sixth group why they think they have a chance when the last thirty or so guys got blown to smithereens. Also, Chow Yun Fat never did get over the whole blinking every time he fired a gun. It’s a small point, but it drives me nuts that The tough guy of 80s Hong Kong Action movies can’t fire a gun without blinking and flinching from the shot. These are minor issues though. They aren’t really all that important in the grand scheme of things. Let’s talk about what does work.

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What the hell is up with that hat?

The story is a little more complex and involved than your average Hong Kong action movie. The story is also damn near complete, with only a few threads left dangling for the audience to decide the conclusion. Even if some parts seem to be written in big letters in crayon, the characters do have some depth. Granted, there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on besides the events within the story, no one has a past or a future beyond this movie, but attempts are made to give some dimension give to the characters beyond their stock origins. In fact, while I’ve never seen it explicitly mentioned, there is a lot of Film Noir influence on this story and the characters. They live in that same shadowy world of gray shaded moral relativity. However! I know that the story and character development isn’t why you’re reading this review, you want to know about the action!

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Hard to have a polite tea break when you’re pointing guns at people.

Well the cinematography is quite interesting and innovative for the time and… okay, okay! I’ll talk about the action. Some of the action is not so hot. There is a car chase which is sort of lame, mainly because you couldn’t really do an awesome car chase at this time in that city. In fact, I’m not sure if anyone has ever really done a car chase in Hong Kong. There have been action sequences involving cars, but not what you’d call a real car chase. It hardly matters though, as that one sticks out in my memory for being the one action scene that doesn’t work. The rest of them work just fine for the most part. There are a few bits and pieces, here and there, that don’t gel properly. Continuity errors abound because of the shooting and editing style, some thugs are clearly the guy who was killed two minutes earlier with a mustache on, but those are very minor things that only jump out at you when you’ve watched the movie several times. Woo is best when he has his characters face each other on simpler terms anyway. Even rifles and machine guns seem wrong somehow. He works best when the characters shoot at each other with handguns like the westerns of old and how I wish he’d just get it over with and make one. So much of his action is just a souped-up version of cowboys shooting it out that you sort of wonder why he never headed out to Arizona, grabbed a couple of horses and just told some actors to go at it with six-shooters.

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He just never looks at ease with a gun in his hand.

The action still works today, over twenty years after its release. It’s not as smooth or as slick as some of the movies that Woo would make later or the movies that this inspired, but that’s part of the charm. There is a certain roughness that travels with the stylization, giving the film a verisimilitude it might not otherwise have. I often think it’s the rough edges that make this and Hard Boiled beloved while Face/Off and M:I 2 fare less well in our collective memories. I think that there is also a greater understanding between Woo and the stuntmen in Woo’s HK work. It feels like he trusts them more and improvisation was more prized in those early days. Of course, that is probably more a difference between Hong Kong and Hollywood than it is the director. Still, there is more than just “Wow, you can see how this action scene inspired stuff in The Matrix.” going on here. These scenes are exciting and interesting on their own merits, even today. I joked about cinematography a paragraph or two ago, but the truth is that the camera work is superlative here. The visual language of this film is probably better than any of Woo’s other movies. From obvious things like putting The Cop in a black suit and The Killer in a white one, to subtler things like shooting conversations in unconventional ways to suggest duality between two characters. I’ve given this movie some flack in this review, but I think I’ve also given the film its fair due of praise as well. It really is a good movie, it’s just far from a perfect movie. It’s probably Woo’s best picture (note: I haven’t seen Red Cliff yet) and rightly remembered among fans.

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Just look at Danny Lee’s Suit! Thank the all mighty Waffle for the 80s.

Official Score: 45 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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