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Fans of the finest John Woo/Chow Yun-Fat collaboration need look no further for a high-octane fix than this result of the deal struck between Hong Kong Legends and Golden Princess Film Productions. Given the great regard in which the output of this studio is held, let’s hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship...

Stylish Hong Kong assassin Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat) takes on his latest assignment from his mentor and friend Sydney (Chu Kong). When taking out his target, a local gambling kingpin, behind the scenes at a small club, Ah Jong unintentionally involves the club’s beautiful singer Jenny (Sally Yeh). In trying to protect the innocent party from the indiscriminate gunfire of the hoodlum’s henchmen, Ah Jong inadvertently blinds the scared chanteuse with the muzzle flash from his weapon. Consumed by guilt, the cold and calculating killer resolves to conclude a last rich contract to pay for an operation overseas and restore Jenny’s sight before finally laying down his guns. Listening to the scarred singer every night and seeing how she struggles to make ends meet without the use of her sight, Ah Jong finds himself falling in love. Seeing off a trio of Jenny’s would-be attackers one night after a show, Ah Jong introduces himself and the pair begin a relationship, ever haunted by the spectre of Ah Jong’s undeclared past.

Killer, The
After yet another run-in with his superiors after the typically successful but highly unconventional resolution to an undercover operation, maverick cop Inspector Li (Danny Lee) is assigned to protect a senior member of the Triad hierarchy during the forthcoming Dragon Boat ceremony. Unfortunately, this underworld figure with a legitimate public exterior is the subject of Ah Jong’s final payday and when the arrangement is executed, Li pursues his criminal quarry across the Hong Kong harbour.

Unknown to him, Ah Jong’s action is merely the masterstroke in an internal Triad power struggle and when he reaches the relative safety of the shore, the brains behind the criminal organisation’s coup tries to have him killed. The resulting firefight alerts Li to his whereabouts. Matters are complicated further after Li’s arrival on the scene when an innocent young girl is caught up and wounded in the crossfire. Narrowly evading capture once again, Ah Jong rushes the girl to a nearby hospital, with Li in close pursuit, and saves her life.

The killer’s compassion leads Li back to Jenny and when Ah Jong is betrayed by his mentor the three are thrust together with the intertwined lines of loyalty to the letter of the law and the honour of the killer’s code becoming ever more blurred…

‘Heroic bloodshed’ or, more recently, ‘bullet ballet’ are two terms so apt to describe this movie that other descriptions fail to serve due justice to John Woo’s action masterpiece. With an emotional dimension that effortlessly illustrates the miserably mechanical nature of myriad Hollywood action thriller rip-offs (Antoine Fuqua’s Replacement Killers starring Chow Yun-Fat himself being a case in point), The Killer rises above the mediocre thanks to its influential action choreography and immeasurable sense of cinematic style.

Not that this movie can be considered as truly original. Drawing on its own influences from American pulp noir to Woo’s own acknowledged inspiration from Melville’s Le Samourai, at times  The Killer can feel more akin to the ‘hard boiled’ gangster movies of the 1930’s than to traditional Hong Kong cinema. What does make this film fantastic is Woo’s marshalling of disparate and incongruous elements (a tender love story, superbly stylised gunplay, an undercurrent of homo-erotic tension, the historical bounds of the laws of honour) into a thrilling cohesive whole.

All of this is underpinned by Chow Yun-Fat’s star-making performance (at least in the west). While he’s always been able to act, just check out his towering turn in the under rated Hong Kong 1941, Woo gives his alter ego room to really demonstrate his prowess. While it could have been easy to overplay the part and act up to the camera or even reduce the role so much in expression as to make Ah Jong a blank soulless killer with which the audience is unable to empathise, Chow Yun-Fat balances the two perfectly. Style with substance, it’s an exceptionally tricky knack to make a cold blooded killer accessible without glamorising how he earns a living, but credit Chow Yun-Fat for pulling it off. Box office poison? At last television paymasters TVB were made to eat their own words.

Killer, The
As its original Cantonese title Bloodshed Of Two Heroes suggests, this movie is much more a two hander than a single man’s show. For this, Danny Lee lends fine support as the cop constantly at odds with his superiors (he even gets his own Dirty Harry moment) both in the dramatic exchanges and pseudo love triangle comedy set piece in Jenny’s apartment. Sally Yeh too works wonders with a woefully underwritten role, considering her character is the focus of the interplay between Li and Ah Jong, and neatly side-steps many of the patronising pitfalls associated with the portrayal of a blind person on screen.

Some of which remains secondary to John Woo’s forte, the stylised set piece. Employing the most extensive use of slow motion seen in the cinema since Sam Peckinpah’s sad demise, The Killer is exemplary in its use of character exposition through action. Those yet to sample this movie who’re expecting 110 minutes of murder and mayhem may be slightly disappointed, there’s always Woo’s own Hard Boiled to sate those celluloid cravings, for there’s a subtle sophistication buried within for those who choose to look for it, as Logan details in his accompanying commentary. Themes and motifs which may now seem old hat are afforded their best incarnation here and it’s a shame that Woo’s subsequent work, taking the lumpy Broken Arrow, the limp Mission Impossible 2 and the woefully leaden Windtalkers as prime examples, has been unable to consistently reproduce the kinetic master class on display.

It’s another clean and clear transfer from Hong Kong Legends, anamorphically enhanced at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. It’s not perfect by any means as there are hints of graininess in several key scenes and the image does suffer from being a little soft in the final explosive church shoot out. That conceded, colours are vibrant, Peter Pau’s wonderful cinematography showing through in a palette of electric blues, bright whites and warm browns. Blacks are suitably deep with admirable shadow detail in the numerous nighttime scenes.

Killer, The
However, what is most impressive about this presentation is the contrast level; considering that Chow Yun-Fat  is usually dressed in a suit of the same hue as his surroundings, this is no mean feat. Whether in a white suit against a painfully bright white interior in the penultimate gunplay set-piece or in a previous battle in his own apartment where his light brown attire complements the spartan set decoration, Ah Jong’s sartorial selection is always rendered distinctly with nary a whiff of edge enhancement. I acknowledge I’ve not had the opportunity to sample the DVD versions of this movie on other regions but I’d say you’d be hard pushed to find The Killer looking better other than from HKL.

The English subtitles provided are mercifully clear to read against the prevalent white backgrounds, being displayed in a nicely legible font with a slight black outline to make them distinctive. Of note, as many owners of previous incarnations of this movie will have grasped, is that the subtitles have been altered to be commensurate with the original intentions of the script. Gone are such incongruous American additions such as ‘Dumbo’ and ‘Jeff’, having been replaced with the Cantonese dialogue’s stipulations of ‘Runt’, ‘Shrimp Head’ and ‘Ah Jong’. Other (minor) tweaks can also be discovered yet I believe that these are all entirely justified.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is available in either original Cantonese or dubbed English incarnations. Like Naked Killer before it, there’s precious little bass to test your subwoofer spare a couple of decent explosions (no small fry for a Hong Kong movie, even on this budget) but channel separation, while understandably not quite to the level of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, is certainly effective, not least in the climactic battle where identically attired goons just begging to be gunned down appear from literally every direction. Weapons fire and squib detonations are crisp and sharp with dialogue, obviously overdubbed as it may be, high enough in the mix to be clear in amongst the ongoing onscreen carnage.

The English dub of the dialogue is unfortunately awful. While I’ve never been a fan of dubbing on films anyway, this is a case where alterations to the script to allow for English to Cantonese lip-synching harmfully affects the actual sense of the story. The voice artists seem to have graduated with honours from the Hollywood college of cheesy overacting with enough celluloid cheddar to make you choke. Particularly maligned is Danny Lee’s character, his original fine performance as an intense cop on the edge of the law grotesquely twisted into an impetuous buffoon of a policeman who simply doesn’t like taking orders. As is usually the case, it’s best to stick with the original dialogue track.

Killer, The
Kicking off this extras selection is the jewel in the crown of any HKL title, a Bey Logan commentary. Quite simply the man is an encyclopaedia of Hong Kong movies, insightfully bridging UK and HK perspectives, and although he’s on his own for the duration of onscreen events there’s never a dull moment with this dynamic participant. Right to the final caption of the end credits, he hardly has time to draw breath!

Working from a test print rather than the HKL DVD itself (thankfully there’s no difference between the two), Logan recounts personal experiences interviewing John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat at various stages of their respective careers, interspersing these snippets with the main body of the immaculately researched commentary. This gives a personal dimension to what could have been a relentless stream of admittedly interesting facts and trivia, and also promotes a greater understanding of the working practices of these two giants of Asian cinema (the Hong Kong equivalent of Scorsese and De Niro, you might say), demonstrating how these deeply held beliefs have shaped their involvement in the Hollywood system. Logan also nicely ties in motifs in The Killer that have been endlessly recycled by other action movies, and even Woo’s own subsequent oeuvre. Doves, double handed gunplay, a bond of brothers on either side of the law; all these and many more are explored by Logan with references and examples ranging from the obscure to the mainstream for more casual cineastes.

The single note of regret, as Logan himself states, is that John Woo declined an invitation to record a commentary for this DVD release. While it’s possible to acknowledge that Woo has already submitted two, reportedly excellent, commentaries for this film on other releases prompting his refusal to do another, it’s a shame that HKL could not secure the rights to at least one of them. Despite the lack of Woo’s involvement, it’s another excellent effort from Logan to show how commentaries should be done: worth the price of admission alone!

Next up is a gallery of five deleted scenes. While they’re interesting to see and welcome additions to this DVD, it soon becomes apparent why these sequences hit the cutting room floor. Three involve somewhat sentimental inserts of emotional interplay between Jenny and Ah Jong that would have shifted the patina of the whole movie had they remained. The other two involve a needless duplication of the scene where Jenny is attacked outside the club (this time involving drunken businessmen and a rescue by Inspector Li) and further exposition of the hired hitman tracking down the central trio to their church hideout.

An interview gallery is also featured, with 15 minute English speaking contributions from leading lady Sally Yeh, co-star Kenneth Tsang and cinematographer Peter Pau. Conducted in perfect English, Sally Yeh’s opening salvo proves to be just that, outlining the history of her induction into the Hong Kong conveyor belt before becoming openly critical of not only her own performance in The Killer but also her frustration in participating in the system itself which prompted her retirement and self-imposed exile to Canada with husband George Lam. It’s a quite startlingly outspoken offering from the impossibly beautiful actress, who incidentally looks younger now than when The Killer was made in 1989, and definitely one to watch.

Kenneth Tsang also expresses a desire for change within the Hong Kong system in his interview, although he’s slightly less incendiary about in expressing his emotions. Having worked in England and the U.S. (he appears in James Bond’s Die Another Day, no less), Tsang is a useful yardstick by his comparison of the different cultures and how these strictures dictate how films are made on opposite sides of the world. He offers insight into working alongside John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat and Pierce Brosnan; his comments on the attitude of co-star Danny Lee go some way to explain why he refused all attempts to be persuaded to become involved with this HKL release…

Lastly in this section is a contribution from Peter Pau. The most focused of the three on offer, Pau restricts his musings to his time working in close partnership with John Woo on The Killer. Seemingly at odds with some of Logan’s information as supplied in his commentary, Pau suggests that his participation on the movie was substantial, delving into great detail as to how the establishment of the similar natures of central characters Li and Ah Jong was made purely through visual means, as opposed to dialogue exposition. It’s a fascinating interview; you’ll learn rather more about John Woo than Peter Pau himself from this section but a worthy viewing nonetheless.

Killer, The
The original theatrical trailer is included along with its U.K. promotional counterpart and are intriguing examples, if only for curiosity’s sake. A promotional gallery rounds out the special features selection and features 6 further HKL titles with a synopsis and trailer to accompany each one.

The accomplished array of extra material is accessed by a thoughtfully designed animated menu system. With the various root menus renamed as a themed homage to the movie, it can be initially unsettling trying to find your way around but the options soon become clear.

If ever a title deserved the ‘Platinum Edition’ treatment, this was it. That said, Hong Kong Legends have produced another fine disc with capable sound and visuals that should satisfy most demanding fans. While the extras ooze quality over quantity, it’s disappointing that neither Woo nor Chow Yun-Fat were involved in the supplemental material as the pair are perhaps the most accessible figures in Hong Kong after Jackie Chan.

Easily John Woo’s best work, the brilliance of The Killer remains undimmed even after a decade of increasingly inferior ‘killer with a conscience’ action thrillers. As the film that broke Chow Yun-Fat as a bona fide movie star and alerted western audiences to John Woo, it’s a classic and the ideal entry point for any viewer as yet unsure of the merits of Hong Kong cinema with the sublime Bey Logan commentary providing plenty of food for thought concerning relevant titles deserving of your hard earned...