Because jaw-dropping is a relatively rare occurrence at movies these days, let us not take the new Hong Kong offering The Killer lightly. For this is a movie that will have audiences sitting open-mouthed in astonishment.
The source of this astonishment is multifaceted. Most spectacularly, there is the film’s incredible violence, with a body count that makes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies look like My Dinner with Andre. In this cartoonish world, human targets are shot to pieces with a fervor that is truly deranged.
Then there is the story, a potboiler about a hit man (played by Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-Fat) who comes out of retirement to perform one last job. In the process, he gets double-crossed and causes the blinding of a beautiful lounge singer (Sally Yeh), with whom he then falls in love.
A detective (Danny Lee) gets on the case and eventually comes to such a close understanding of his adversary that you half expect the two of them to ride off into the sunset together. Anyway, the sunset is obscured by the hail of bullets and the river of blood that accompany the finale, a showdown in a church (praise the Lord and pass the ammunition—lots of it).
In the felicitous phrase of critic Richard Corliss, all of this put together creates “a severely inane melodrama.” The aggressively B-movie plot and dialogue (the male-bonding scenes between criminal and cop being especially hilarious) are crude beyond belief.
And yet, director John Woo and producer Tsui Hark (two of the leaders of the currently wild Hong Kong film scene) are so sure-footed and so swift that they carry you along in the film’s bloody wake. As ludicrous as much of the movie is, I couldn’t help sitting there with a grin on my face—that is, when my jaw wasn’t dropping.
Supposedly this movie was threatened with an X rating from the increasingly irrelevant MPAA ratings board. (It is being released without any rating.) An X seems silly under these circumstances, because the violence here is completely unreal; The Killer is as much a Nintendo game as a movie.
First published in the Herald, September 1990
It’s more than Nintendo, duh. Wonderful movie, and this was a great era of discovery when it comes to the Hong Kong cinema. I interviewed John Woo once a few years later—a dapper, elegant fellow—and sometimes I often wonder whether his transition to Hollywood filmmaker forced him into a naturalistic style that just doesn’t suit him very well. Some moviemakers need to be untethered from all that.