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The Killer: The Criterion Collection

Voyager Home Video

Starring Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee, and Sally Yeh.

Written and directed by John Woo

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The films of John Woo are an acquired taste. The legendary Hong Kong action director is servant to a very specific style, parts western and thriller, but with the emotional hyperbole of a Broadway musical. Some find his gunfights excessive, his themes sentimental, and his style high camp. Each of these individual criticisms is very true. But, for the Woo fan, his incredible concoction of these unlikely elements is sublime, and The Killer is his great masterpiece.

Chow Yun Fat stars as John, an assassin with a moral compass. The people he is paid to murder, he asserts, deserve it, and he charges a fine price for his expertise. But an on-the-job mishap shakes John's perspective. In the midst of a hit in a posh nightclub, the ensuing gunfight endangers the club's pretty lounge singer, Jennie (Sally Yeh). John attempts to protect her as he saves himself, but a blast of gunpowder from his own weapon burns her corneas, almost completely blinding her.

John starts a relationship with Jennie, hiding his true identity, and promises to get her a cornea transplant before she loses what is left of her power of sight. To afford this and retire, however, he must partake of one last job — a job that leaves him hunted by the police and gangsters alike.

The most impressionable aspect of The Killer, and John Woo films in general, is its gunplay. Woo's action scenes are carefully choreographed spectacles of violence, a Bolshoi with bullets. His shooters soar through the air with canons in each hand, blasting an inexhaustible supply of ammo, and collapsing in terpsichorean death convulsions. You can scoff at the improbable odds all you like, but it's virtuoso filmmaking, more about beauty and grace than cops and robbers. Each of his set pieces in this film is vivid, exciting, and unforgettable.

Woo's more difficult affectations to cotton to are his heavy-handed themes and ponderous emotional stylistics. But his audacious attempts to integrate such material into action fare is refreshing and fascinating. Like in most of Woo's films, The Killer dwells greatly on loyalty, honor, and the bonds between men, especially those on opposing sides of conflict. In this case, John must team up with the cop on his case, Inspector Li (Danny Lee), to ward off an army of gangsters. Woo embellishes their relationship with his trademark Mexican stand-offs, intercutting, freeze-frames, slow motion, and drippy Cantonese pop ballads. This is a spit in the face to Hollywood's cynically required ironic detachment. Woo is brazen enough to suggest that emotion and action not only can work together, but are inseparable.

Even when Woo's approaches to emotion come off flat or sophomoric — or overbearingly, operatically tragic like The Killer's incredible finale — they are always brave and heartfelt, and an unusual touch for a genre obsessed with ego and destruction. They can also be easily excused by the culture gap between West and East, which, in itself, provides some moments of comic relief in Woo's work. At their first face to face encounter, John and Li endow each other with insulting nicknames, subtitled as "Butt-Head" and "Numb-nuts," but closer in direct translation to "prawn's-head" and "big baby boy" (when The Killer was first released theatrically in the early '90s, these nicknames were subtitled as "Mickey Mouse" and "Dumbo.")

Despite the growing success of Woo's Hollywood films, like the overrated Face/Off, his recent output has lost not only the charm of such cultural discrepancies, but also the breadth of feeling, kinetic energy, and bold invention of his Hong Kong films (Woo has frequently complained of limitations imposed by tighter film set safety regulations in the U.S.). It may be that this great visionary's best work is behind him, making this Criterion Collection special edition a treat.

boxcoverA rare treat. Criterion's The Killer has dropped out of print due to legal reasons, and copies of it are currently selling for around $100 on the online auction circuit. Rent it before it disappears from your local video store and never returns. You could also try to find the Asian DVD, which we are told does not have region coding, but since The DVD Journal hasn't obtained a copy of this one yet, you'll have to do it at your own risk.

Criterion's The Killer is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, and looks good despite some wear on the source print, and 1.0 Dolby in Cantonese. English subtitles are available. Includes commentary by Woo and producer Terence Chang, and deleted scenes.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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