Two Dissolve writers keep The Killer conversation going...
Scott: Let’s flash back to the early ’90s. I was an undergrad at the University Of Georgia and a member of Cinematic Arts, a student organization that programmed a repertory house inside the Tate Center. Back then, we didn’t have the Internet, so we mostly counted on reference books to make programming decisions—and barring that, information from the catalogs distributors sent to us. We were aware of reviews for new movies, and kept up as much as we could, but in The Killer’s case, I can clearly remember that the catalog alone was our only source of information, along with the distribution rep’s unbridled enthusiasm. Beyond the catalog photo, which I’m certain conveyed the transcendent cool of a gun-wielding Chow Yun-fat in a suit, we didn’t have a true sense of what we were programming until the trailer arrived. And I can tell you that the trailer, a one-minute barrage of balletic gunfire and hyperbolic blurbs, was an absolute sensation, to the point where it alone was responsible for filling up a 500-seat theater during its two-day run, even with a movie unknown to many, including the programmers. Once it did screen, audience reaction was akin to what we see now at the Midnight Madness section at TIFF every year—like slinging raw slabs of beef to a pack of wild animals.
I believed then—and I certainly believe now, in retrospect—that The Killer reaching these shores was a watershed moment for action filmmaking, every bit as influential in shaping the genre’s future as Die Hard, which was produced a year earlier. (Though The Killer took an extra year and change to get across the Pacific.) Though John Woo was by no means a sui generis action savant—we’ll get into his pilfering of the other genre masters plenty, I’m sure—the idea of style itself being a primary attraction was new. Action films are required to deliver excitement, and style is part of that, but Woo took it to another level, combining the choreography of martial-arts movies (with guns replacing fists and feet of fury) with the slow motion and exploding squibs of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. The Killer builds on the past by way of elaborate staging and sheer excess: The shootouts are scaled up and bloodier than any we’d witnessed before, and the way faceless henchmen are dispatched is more important than the actual dramatic stakes of the event.
So what was your first impression of The Killer, Shrimp Head? Do you remember it having the same impact? Or were you already a jaded big-city guy by then?
Mike: I actually have no record of my first viewing—which might not sound that unusual, except that I’ve been keeping a log since January 1, 1992. Which means I must have seen The Killer during its original U.S. theatrical run, sometime in mid-1991. (The New York Times review—by Stephen Holden, who’s still doing the job today!—ran on April 12 of that year. He called it “alternately gripping and laughable,” but he’s generally more positive than I’d have guessed.) And I must confess, sheepishly, that it didn’t have a seismic impact on me at the time. In fact, I vaguely recall feeling somewhat underwhelmed, and I know for sure that it wasn’t in contention for my top 10 list that year. Bullet In The Head, which I saw a few years later, was the movie that made me a Woo fan… and while I still consider that a great film, it’s not prototypically badass in the way The Killer and Hard Boiled are. (I did love Hard Boiled at first sight, but I didn’t see that one until shortly after Face/Off dropped.) So why was I initially cool toward Woo’s game-changing brand of coolness? And why, for that matter, do I not fully embrace The Killer until its final scene, even today?
Watching it again, I think the answer lies in Woo’s unapologetic use of melodrama, especially during the film’s early scenes. You and I are close to the same age, Scott, so I’m not sure how you escaped this pothole, but I feel like I originally saw The Killer at the worst possible time in my life: I was 23, and almost pathologically resistant to anything I perceived as emotionally manipulative. While I can’t be sure, because my memories are hazy, I suspect I was put off by the notion of an antihero who regularly murders people with guns in both hands, but is also so much of a secret softie that he falls in love with a singer he accidentally blinds and risks getting caught after a hit in order to rush a wounded little girl to the hospital. My younger self could handle Travis Bickle’s tender feelings toward Iris in Taxi Driver, because Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro carefully maintain a certain cold distance, and because Travis is a flaming psychopath. Woo comes from a different tradition (with which I had almost no experience at the time), and his unironic sentimentality must have set off what I then believed to be my highly sensitive and finely calibrated bullshit alarm.
Still, that’s no excuse for my failure to recognize a stylistic tour de force. Revisiting the movie’s second assassination setpiece—the one at the regatta—I was surprised to see Woo execute a move that I now associate with Spike Lee, of all people. There’s a series of increasingly quick cuts back and forth between Chow Yun-fat’s assassin Ah Jong and a close-up of a drum being beaten. Then Chow suddenly lifts his rifle to take aim, and that single action gets repeated three times in quick succession from different angles. I doubt it’s plausible to claim that Lee (who often does that when his characters embrace) was inspired by Woo, but where do you see The Killer’s influence in the action movies that followed? Is it still prevalent today, or has its time come and gone?
Scott: Let me address that last question first. The Killer is, to me, a touchstone for the “cinema of cool,” which you could broadly describe as style for the sake of it. In Woo’s case, specifically note Chow’s extraordinarily elegant assassin (the suit, the slicked-back hair, the sunglasses—which all figured into the criminal kind in Quentin Tarantino’s work) and action setpieces full of protracted slow motion and a choreography that’s far from the rough-and-tumble of more conventional genre face. There are moments in the movie that I remember specifically drawing whoops from the audience, like Ah Jong running out of bullets (in two handguns, which is of course super-cool) and kicking one end of a card table so a gun catapults back in his direction, just in time for him to ice an adversary. The word I’d use to describe Woo’s action in The Killer and its far-reaching legacy as we’ve headed into the CGI era is “perfect”: You watch the action in John Wick or Wanted or Kingsman: The Secret Service, and the satisfaction for the audience comes not from tense, visceral, messy gunplay or fisticuffs, but from precision, a ballet of impossible bullseyes. There are times in all these films—and in The Killer—when we’re hit with an explosion of gunfire and squibs, but the money moments are the greatest distance from what would happen in real life. (I have a theory that people go to these movies less for the thrills than for the tidiness, but it’s underdeveloped.)
As for the melodramatic elements of The Killer, I believe I gave them a pass entirely on first viewing, writing them off as the business necessary to get us to the good stuff (like exposition or dialogue in porn films) and perhaps also as a convention of a film culture to which I was largely unfamiliar. The love story in The Killer is one of the main reasons I’ve embraced Hard Boiled and (sorry, haters) Face/Off more fervently over the years, though I came around on it a little this viewing. Tempting as it might be to write it off as tacky melodrama, more Days Of Our Lives than Douglas Sirk, its tone is consistent with the heightened unreality of the action sequences. Ah Jong isn’t just fighting for love and redemption for any ol’ damsel-in-distress type; he’s blinded Jennie (Sally Yeh) and she literally cannot see that her mysterious benefactor is the man responsible for maiming her. That’s drama on a City Lights scale!
It also leads to some funny moments, like when Ah Jong and Li Ying (Danny Lee), the detective eager to bring him down, have to play-act as good buddies around Jennie, all while trying to get the drop on each other. For Li Ying—and for us—Ah Jong’s willingness to protect Jennie and sacrifice himself on her behalf is what gives him nobility and honor. You could argue that there might be a more graceful way to establish this than a quest for working corneas, but I’m willing to accept the bigness of the melodrama as of a piece with the scale of the action. Did it play any differently for you now than it did when your “highly calibrated bullshit alarm” made you more suspicious? You seemed a bit disdainful of your younger self in your last missive, but never said whether he was wrong in this instance.
I’m also interested in what you think of the theme of honor that runs through The Killer, specifically in the relationship between Ah Jong and Li Ying, who are set up as black-hat and white-hat, respectively, but are drawn into a partnership that borders on symbiotic. The true scoundrels in this scenario are the Triad thugs who are coming after them in waves; these men have a common purpose, and generate a mutual respect we’d see again in a movie like Heat. They’re on opposite sides of the law, but they each abide by codes of honor, which is more than can be said of the other men with guns in this movie.
Mike: Well, to quote Charlie Kaufman speaking to his brother Donald (as I often do): “On top of that, you explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person. See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this.” Granted, The Killer is a truly archetypal example of this dynamic—not the first same-coin cops-and-robbers movie, by any means, but certainly among the best-known and most-loved. I’m willing to cut it some slack in terms of cliché. At the same time, though, the film’s notion of honor is, again, a little corny, which is something I’ve had to train myself not to worry about. You were right to think you detected some lingering ambivalence—I suspect Younger Me was snidely dismissive of Woo’s sincerity, but even Marginally Less Younger Me (just roll with it) experiences the occasional eyeroll when Ah Jong says things like “The world has changed. You and I are no longer suited to the Triad lifestyle, because we treasure the past too much.”
Woo doesn’t really earn these moments of contemplation and self-doubt, which for most of The Killer sit uneasily beside the avalanche of pure style you describe so well above. Heat is a good point of comparison—and it’s worth noting that Younger, Clearly Insane Me didn’t like Heat at all, whereas Marginally Less Younger And Only Occasionally Wack Me (just roll with it) thinks Heat is terrific—but Mann invests a great deal more into Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna as characters, and maintains a more cohesive balance between super-cool style and efforts at substance. On the other hand, he doesn’t include awesome scenes in which McCauley and Hanna conduct entire conversations while pointing guns inches from each other’s faces, so there’s that.
(Also, vis-à-vis The Killer’s lingering influence, that specific badass move you mention, in which Ah Jong retrieves a gun too far away to reach by flipping a table, turned up not too long ago in Space Jail. Sorry, I mean… pause while I look up actual title… in Lockout, as performed by Guy Pearce. So the cinema of cool hasn’t been entirely abandoned, though we could surely use more Space Jails.)
What ultimately brings me around on The Killer is the sheer overwhelming bleakness of its ending, which caught me totally off-guard again when I finally revisited the film a few years ago. It’s not just that I like unhappy endings, though I do tend to skew that way—they’re more realistic, and happy endings involve a much higher degree of difficulty, in my opinion. (One of the reasons I love Buffalo ’66 so much is that Vincent Gallo succeeds in pulling one off, seemingly out of nowhere.) In this particular case, it’s that the shock wave of the ending, with its abrupt plummet into utter despair, seems to reverberate back through the entire movie, retroactively giving weight to aspects that seemed hokey in the moment. When Li tells Ah Jong, during that final standoff, “Don’t forget that you still have a friend to back you up,” the double meaning—he’s letting Ah Jong know that he has a backup weapon, but also making a tender declaration of bro love—is a bit risible.
Until, that is, Ah Jong not only gets killed (that had been foreshadowed) but gets shot in both eyes, thereby making it impossible for Li to keep his promise and make sure Jenny gets Ah Jong’s corneas. Woo treats this as genuine tragedy rather than as a sick joke (even with Li yelling “Shrimp Head!”), and choosing to end the film on this horrible note makes it abundantly clear that he’s been entirely in earnest all along. There’s just no way to watch Ah Jong and Jenny crawling blindly past each other and not give every maudlin moment of The Killer the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think it would have worked for me with a more conventional denooeyment. (“That’s not how it’s pronounced.”)
What’s your take on the finale, Runt? Do you recall what you thought the first time? I’m wondering whether someone who’s focused first and foremost on the coolness (which was never really me) gets put off by all that operatic agony at the end. Also, how do we feel about the movie’s sole woman being entirely functional, with no personality of her own? Jenny was clearly not a contender for our recent list of the most daring female film roles since Ripley.
Scott: Well, Shrimp Head, I think the bleakness of the ending goes back to that primary Woo source, The Wild Bunch, in which our vastly overmatched heroes are caught up in a hail of gunfire. Peckinpah would have never tolerated the sentiment that culminates in that shootout, though as I wrote earlier, I think Woo stages both the action and the melodrama on a heightened scale. (Clever Adaptation jokes aside, I’m glad you recognize that Woo is playing with cop/crook archetypes more than he’s recycling clichés. That’s true of Hong Kong action cinema of that era more generally, based on my experience; for me, it was often like watching Hollywood transformed and reflected back, with amplified style.) I’ll get to the bleakness of the ending in a second, but do you remember the part where Ah Jong slides backward on the floor, shoots an attacker with two guns, and the guy just twists back and forth like a ragdoll as each bullet hits him and the squibs are exploding? That was awesome.
Okay, back to the ending. I think it’s reasonable to expect that Ah Jong will sacrifice himself for Jenny, given that he took her sight, though the ending is surprising in that she doesn’t recover her vision before the credits roll. Woo denies us that expected moment when Jenny gets her corneas replaced and sees that the man responsible for maiming her is the same one who’s been advocating for her all this time. To have them crawl past each other is a tragic conclusion for both parties, as is Li shooting the bad guy after he surrenders to the police, thus consigning him to a terrible fate, too. Is there a lesson we can draw from all this? Is Woo saying men who lead a life of violence are ultimately doomed by it? I’m not sure if there’s a message to be taken away from The Killer, though he’s been emphatic in the past about not wanting to glorify violence with his films. These are men of honor, that much is established, but Woo holds Ah Jong to an admirably harsh reckoning, even though Jenny doesn’t exactly get what she deserves. (Though who knows what she deserves? Characters in women-in-prison movies have more agency than she does.)
So what of the doves, Shrimp Head? And what’s the significance of staging the final shootout in a church and having the Virgin Mary icon shatter to a swelling of the score? The doves are a symbol for peace, though in Woo’s film, they’re more a symbol that something bloody is about to go down. But I wonder if the desecration of the church means something to Woo, because I can’t recall other Woo films where God and religion are given significance. I trust it’s not just for atmospheric purposes, though there are plenty of candles for ambience—and plenty of scaffolding, too, to keep the action on multiple planes. Li gets shot in the hand and Woo lingers on that briefly, though claiming him a Christ figure is a bit of a stretch under the circumstances. I’m genuinely at a loss here, despite religious imagery that in other hands would seem absurdly heavy-handed. (I’m looking at you, 1990s Abel Ferrara!)
Any final thoughts? Favorite moments? Are there later Woos that took what you liked about The Killer and discarded what you didn’t like? We’ve mentioned Hard Boiled and Face/Off, but I found myself making an argument recently for Hard Target, which is a much better Hollywood debut than I considered it at the time.
Mike: I’ve never seen Hard Target, actually—it got blah reviews upon release, and I took a pass. And with the notable exception of Red Cliff, which boasts some genuinely exciting action setpieces, Woo’s films post-Face/Off have been a big disappointment. (I should note that I saw the single-film U.S. release version of Red Cliff, and I haven’t yet caught up with his two most recent films, Reign Of Assassins and The Crossing.) Paycheck, in particular, is all too aptly named, as everyone noted at the time. Hard Boiled feels like his peak, taking The Killer’s amalgam of kinetic fury and operatic emotion to a gleefully absurdist extreme.
As a staunch atheist, I often struggle with religious iconography in movies, and I can’t claim to know what Woo is up to with The Killer’s use of a church as a key location. Ah Jong makes a point of saying he doesn’t believe in God, and visits the church merely to enjoy its tranquility; obviously, that tranquility is permanently shattered in the finale, and maybe it’s really as simple as that. On the other hand, the early scene in which Ah Jong gets a bullet extracted cuts between his pain and a shot of Jesus on the cross, drawing an implicit connection between the two. Honestly, this seems pretty muddled, and given that Woo hasn’t spent his career returning to it (apart from the doves, which I think is just a cool effect that wouldn’t work as well with, say, pigeons), I’d suggest it isn’t very deeply felt.
What is deeply felt is the bromance, and Jenny is so negligible as a character, I suspect, because she’s primarily an excuse to place Ah Jong and Li in mutual gun-to-face configurations that represent a symbolic 69. That’s The Killer’s enduring iconic image, and arguably the go-to visual for Hong Kong action cinema in general (wu xia films excluded). Their efforts to be civilized at the same time, in order not to alarm Jenny (who assumes they’re friends, which will they soon will be), also serves as a masterful emblem of détente crossed with mutual assured destruction, which was still relevant back in 1989. (Reagan was just six months out of office when The Killer had its world première.) In the end, that’s what I take away from this film: two men with strained smiles, walking in a tight circle with arms outstretched pointing pistols in each other’s faces, unaware that they’ll soon be united in admiration and ruin. Pretty heady for a “cinema of cool.”
The discussion of John Woo’s The Killer concludes with Charles’ essay on how Jean-Claude Van Damme helped usher in the age of Hong Kong-style Hollywood action by acting as a bridge between the two worlds. And don’t miss Keith’s Keynote on The Killer, tracking how the film serves as a primer on Woo’s approach to action.