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The Killer
cast: Chow Yun-fat, Sally Yeh, Danny Lee, Kenneth Tsang, and Chu Kong

Writer and director: John Woo

107 minutes (18) 1989
widescreen ratio 16:9
Hong Kong Legends DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Tony Lee
Ah Jong, alias Jeff (Chow Yun-fat, one of a very few action movie stars who really can act!) is a 'noble' assassin - a professional killer with a conscience. When he accidentally blinds lounge singer Jenny (Sally Yeh) during a gunfight, guilt drives him to make amends by paying for the cornea transplant operation to restore her sight. To this end, he takes on one last contact job before quitting the murder business while he's still young enough to enjoy life (and still alive, ho-hum), but the death of the gangster on the end of his riflescope (Jeff only targets evil and corrupt "men who deserve to die") brings about a vengeful gang war, in which our antihero is hunted by an army of henchmen, and the Hong Kong cops, led by the somewhat amoral and corrupt Detective Inspector 'Eagle' Li (Danny Lee).
   The Killer (aka: Diexue Shuang Xiong) is a masterpiece of sorrowful drama and screen violence, and a showcase for some of the most fantastic gun battles ever filmed, with an official body count of 120. It was made after John Woo had completed the classics A Better Tomorrow (1986) and sequel A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987), both of which starred the often smartly dressed Chow, and it further polished the grand operatic style that signified the director's oeuvre of 'ballistic ballet'. The Killer was Woo's first international success, becoming a formative essay in the 'heroic bloodshed' subgenre and, since then, its style has been widely imitated by other filmmakers, especially in Hollywood, yet rarely with a fraction of the genuinely imaginative, visual flair demonstrated here by Woo.
   Woo has acknowledged Jean-Pierre Melville's European art film Le Samourai (aka: The Godson, 1967) with Alain Delon, as the inspiration for this movie, and the closing sequence, pitting Jeff and Li against a final attack by the baddies pays homage to Peckinpah's seminal western, The Wild Bunch (1969). However, The Killer is much more than the sum of these cinephile references. Woo's intuitive aesthetic sense brought Hong Kong martial arts' acrobatic stunts and the ethical codes of chivalry and honour from Japanese samurai pictures to the stylised and knowingly intense yet choreographed mayhem of the modern crime thriller. With its story of two men on opposite sides of the law, both in love with the same girl, The Killer has a deceptively simple plot. What makes it an important genre film is the sheer artistic vitality and cinematic flamboyance of its hi-energy shootouts.
   As many critics have noted, the characters of cop and killer are flipsides of the same movie icon, a tough gunman at odds with the realities of the world he works and lives in. Jeff is the archetypal killer who has grown tired of killing, while Li is the ruthless lawman determined to bring his nemesis to justice. When they wind up fighting together, as loyal 'brothers' facing a common foe against the odds, all the familiar clichés of gallant knights and honest cowboys are recast in a new and unusual setting. The emotive climax in a besieged church, where symbolic doves and racked candles decorate and illuminate the struggling heroes' last stand, sees our fearless champions slaying many more of their anonymous, bullet-magnet enemies, before the inevitably tragic dénouement.
   Hollywood plans to remake The Killer, with Denzel Washington and Richard Gere as stars, fell through (thankfully?) when director Walter Hill turned it down. The speedboat chase was reprised at far greater expense and length in Woo's own US produced Face/Off, and although his American film amounts to a spectacular revision of this one, there can be little doubt that The Killer is more coherent and original, except for some brilliantly orchestrated shootouts in Face/Off, like the spectacularly imaginative sequence with mirrors, which distinguished it from the majority of less cinematically adventurous Hollywood fare.
   So what's the link with Disney about? Well, the original version of The Killer, Chow's character was known as Mickey Mouse, and Lee's was nicknamed Dumbo... until the corporate suits took offence at this blatant 'misuse' of the world famous cartoon icons. Eventually, all references were removed from both soundtrack and subtitles.
   The DVD has a digitally restored and re-mastered anamorphic transfer of the uncut version, with Dolby digital 5.1 sound. Disc extras include: interviews with supporting actor Kenneth Tsang (Dreamweaver), leading lady Sally Yeh (Killer Lady), and cinematographer Peter Pau (Poet In Motion), five rare deleted scenes, plus a commentary by Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, and trailer archive. There's also a double-sided sleeve, so you can choose between gold on brown or blue on a splash of blood red as the main colours.

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