The Killer Review

What does the House of God represent to John Woo? It is a place of comfort, but not of religion. Candles without conflict. Yet these calm tones are a smokescreen, certainly in the opening shots of The Killer, where a contract hitman is given an assignment. He leaves the warmth of this peaceful place and heads out into the storm. It would be rather obvious to call it a metaphor for him braving the storm of dangerous work, and Woo certainly has the narrative strengths to present such themes, but who cares? The Killer is an action film at its heart, and its heart is filled with a love for the genre and the guns that come with it. It is the sign of a fine director indeed when the blurring of action and passionate messaging can be so seamless.  

Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat) is the hitman that brings this blend of action and passion. His accidental blinding of a young nightclub singer preys on his conscience. He feels responsible, and he is. One last job would give him the funds needed to figure a way out of it all. Expectedly, things go wrong. He is double-crossed and toys with the local, hard-working but hardly-noticed police officer, Li (Danny Lee). They do not work together per se but are in the vicinity of one another. That mutual respect between cat and mouse, for Li understands the humanity found within Ah Jong, and Ah Jong a respect for the professionalism of Li. These are topics and moments that the action genre has described often, but done well so infrequently. The Killer is a diamond in the horribly rough, choppy waters of the genre. 

But it is not the story I am interested in; I want to see incredible action set pieces with a seemingly indefinable number of bullets lodged into every handgun. It is a mere coincidence that The Killer offers a strong story and expertly crafted action. All the hallmarks of the Woo action flick are there, from the slow-motion shots to the doves flowing through the air as an act of purity abandoning these soon-to-be-deceased characters. His gunplay and frequent utilisation of such scenes make for the adrenalin-pushing moments so thoroughly engaging, but Woo is an artist at heart and exceeds spectacularly when necessary. He is a natural.

While the special effects are in their primitive stages and leave something extra to be desired, The Killer is a hard-hitting romp through the tough, Triad-run streets of Hong Kong. Woo presents such an expressive and innovative understanding of how action films need pacing as well as constraint. The build-up and lingering hints of an explosive finale are far stronger than that of a series of small shootouts with tedious characters. His writing is as strong as his action, and that is a rare blend to find. Rarer still to consider he is so consistent with it and would go on to perfect this in Bullet in the Head. It is another film that follows the thoughts of the justice of death. Woo manages this perfectly capably here, and brings out the redemptive arc of his characters with superb style and cutting action. Are the criminals that creep through the cracks in need of a fair trial? The Killer certainly doesn’t think so. But that is the beauty of the personal vendetta when put so effectively to the big screen.  

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