The Killer is one of those landmark movies in Hong Kong cinema and especially important for introducing John Woo and Chow Yun Fat to international audiences. It cemented the theme of Heroic Bloodshed and gave rise to a whole slew of action movies in the same vein. The influences are far reaching to hundreds of Movies from “The Matrix” to Robert Rodriguez’s “Desperado”. Even today there are action movies been released that still pay homage to Woo’s vision of what action should be. John Woo made gun violence beautiful.
While “The Killer” isn’t my favorite John Woo movie (my favorite been “Bullet in the Head“) it is an important movie by the Director and highly enjoyable.
In Hong Kong Cinema in the late 70s to early 80s Chivalry swordplay movies were highly popular, even Woo had made the sword play movie “Last Hurrah for Chivalry” in 1979. The role of the highly romanticized hero who sacrifices himself is deeply routed in Chinese literature. John woo modernized the Chiverlous hero in his gun toting action films by replacing the hero’s swords with guns. But the influences for this film and Woo’s character’s go deeper than that. In fact I think this might be Woo’s personal magnum opus.
The biggest influences on this film come from two movies that are favorites of John Woo. They are “Le Samourai” and “Narazumono” (An Outlaw). I can’t review “The Killer” without mentioning these movies such is there influence on the Director and his work. “Le Samourai” is a film by Woo’s Hero, Jean Pierre Melville and stars Alain Delon as a Hitman who adheres to the code of The Bushido. You’ll also find that this film inspired Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”. In “Le Samurai” the hitman develops a relationship with a piano player of a club he has made a hit in. The player can identify him for the killing but chooses not to. Already we can see the influence on The Killer with the story set up taking place in a Music club except in “The Killer” Chow Yun Fat’s character accidentally blinds the singer in a shootout and overcome with guilt tries to take care of her and get enough money together to send her to Taiwan for an operation that would restore her eyesight. Some people people have criticized this plot point, that a hitman who blows away villainous criminals and innocent bystanders could care for this girl he blinded, but I think it’s missing the point to say that. The character has injured a woman and in the process of a hit, he has caused her to suffer each day because of his direct actions. Sure, he may be cold hearted to other innocent victims in shootouts but he hasn’t developed any emotional/romantic connection with them and it’s the incident with the singer that is the turning point for this character. The singer is seen as a symbolic get out card to save his soul. If he saves her sight maybe he could cleanse his own life by this good deed. To give Chow the vibe of Alain Delon Woo decided to have Chow dress in more period clothing. This angel white suit would make a later appearance with a similar romanticized Hitman in “Bullet in the Head“.
The other influence comes from the excellent Narazumono starring Takakura Ken. John Woo has been quoted in interviews as loving this movie and that it gave him the spirit to make “The Killer”. In it Takakura Ken is a Hitman in Hong Kong who is tricked into killing an innocent man and at the same time becomes accidentally involved in a drug switch. Using that as leverage for information he decides to take revenge by tracking down the man who has deceived him and travels to Macau where he encounters a prostitute suffering from Consumption (Tuberculous). He offers to take her away from this life.
Again, as with The Killer the main character uses the fallen woman as a way of redeeming his own mistakes in life. This redemption the main character seeks is found throughout the movie from the beginning as we find him in Church. Again the religious symbolism in Woo’s action is very blunt. A statue of the Mama Mary blowing up is seeming to represent the destruction of goodness and truth. The shootout in the church represents the final ending for these characters, the gateway between life and death and for their crimes they are all ultimately punished in the eyes of God and tricked by fate in the final scenes outside the church.
Favorite Quote: “The world has changed. Honor is now a dirty word.” – Joe