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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

THE KILLER -- DVD review by porfle

I wasn't that impressed with THE KILLER (1989) the first time I saw it back in the 90s. Then again, I was watching a choppy pan-and-scan VHS copy that was badly-dubbed and looked awful. Plus, I'd just been blown away by HARD BOILED (still my favorite John Woo film), and THE KILLER seemed rather tame in comparison with that insanely action-packed epic. But with the new 2-disc Ultimate Edition of THE KILLER on the Dragon Dynasty label, I'm finally getting to see it in all its uncut pictorial glory and appreciate it as one of the finest action films ever made.

I think it was an episode of the great TV series "The Incredibly Strange Film Show" that first got me interested in the films of John Woo, Tsui Hark, and other hot Hong Kong directors. I found the innovative and extremely rapid-fire editing in the film clips to be a new and exhilarating visual experience. Just as the Beatles interpreted American rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues and played it back to us in exciting new ways, Hong Kong cinema was assimilating the methods of Sam Peckinpah and others and using this as a starting point for creating a super-charged cinematic style that would, in turn, have an overwhelming effect on the future of American action cinema.

Woo himself credits many influences, among them French director Jean-Pierre Melville, certain Japanese films, and classical American cinema. Unsurprisingly, Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorcese are key figures in the development of his film style, in addition to the old Hollywood musicals. Woo calls THE KILLER an "action-musical", and it's easy to see how his shoot-em-up sequences are often inspired by the spirit of that genre's more dazzling and dynamic production numbers. (I'm guessing Woo is an admirer of Gene Kelly and films such as SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and ON THE TOWN.)

There's even a little bit of Charlie Chaplin's CITY LIGHTS, I think, in the relationship between ace hitman Ah Jong (the great Chow Yun-Fat) and Jennie (Sally Yeh), the pretty young cabaret singer who was blinded during one of his hits. The guilt-ridden Ah Jong befriends Jennie with the hope of helping her regain her eyesight with a cornea transplant, but to pay for the operation he will have to postpone his plans to retire and perform one last hit. Complicating matters is the fact that the evil Triad boss for whom he works has just put out the order for Ah Jong himself to be eliminated.

Meanwhile, Inspector Li Ying (Danny Lee), a renegade cop who has the same "hate-hate" relationship with his boss as countless other renegade cops before him, is hot on Ah Jong's trail and has traced him to Jennie. In a strange turn of events, cop and hitman become grudging allies as Li Ying sympathizes with Ah Jong's desire to help Jennie and decides to back him up when the Triad kill squad comes a-callin'. This leads to a blazing shoot-out in a church with the fate of our unlikely heroes in the balance.

Unlike the usual stoic, repressed action figure, Chow Yun Fat's character is a man of deep feelings whose code of killing only bad guys is compromised not only by Jennie's injury but by the shooting of a little girl during an exciting escape from the police. Ah Jong risks his freedom to race the girl to a hospital, where he and Li Ying have one of many Mexican standoffs (Woo really loves these) just a few feet away from where doctors are struggling to save the girl's life.

Here, and in Ah Jong's scenes with Jennie, Woo's penchant for melodrama and sentimentality come to the fore. Such unrestrained romanticism may be off-putting to more hardcore action fans who prefer their mayhem untainted by mush. Although it gets a little thick at times, I think this gives an interesting added dimension to Woo's passages of gun-blazing carnage, as does the underlying religious tone (Woo describes himself as a Christian) which makes Ah Jong such a conflicted character seeking redemption.

Also interesting is the fact that Li Ying begins to identify with and even admire him for his honorable qualities--Woo points out their similarities in a nice parallel-image sequence--as their mutual concern for Jennie has them pretending to be and eventually becoming friends. Woo's humor comes to the fore when they initially hold each other at gunpoint while assuring the blind Jenny that all is well, even giving each other affectionate nicknames "Small B" and "Shrimp Head" (or "Mickey Mouse" and "Dumbo" in the English dub). By the end of the movie, they're as close as brothers and willing to die for each other.

More than anything else, however, THE KILLER is a feast for action connoisseurs as Woo stages one astounding shoot-out after another. His trademarks are all here, from the rapid-fire two-gun approach (his heroes never seem to run out of bullets) which has since been adopted by, well, everybody, to the sliding-backward-on-the-floor-while firing method, to everything else in-between. Innovations abound, with Woo's distinctive use of slow-motion and freeze-frames mixed with the regular action as his artistic sensibility sees fit, all creatively edited into a barrage of explosive images that bombard the viewer in waves of kinetic visual sensation.

Some of the action borders on the surreal, with scores of bad guys swarming non-stop into the line of fire only to be mowed down in twisting, jerking, blood-spewing (yet strangely balletic) death throes. Echoes of the famous shoot-outs from Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH pervade the climactic battle in the church, while the melodrama of the story weaves its way through the hail of bullets and fiery explosions toward a starkly emotional conclusion. It bears noting that Woo improvised much of the story and dialogue on-set, shooting from a treatment rather than a finished script, yet considers this to be one of his most "complete" films.

The Dragon Dynasty DVD is in the original widescreen with Dolby Digital sound. Languages are Cantonese and dubbed English, both mono, with English and Spanish subtitles. The second disc includes an intimate interview with John Woo, two audience Q & A's with Woo which accompanied screenings of THE KILLER and HARD BOILED, a look at the locations of THE KILLER then and now, and a John Woo trailer gallery. Missing in action is a commentary track.

Whether you're a long-time fan or just seeing it for the first time, Dragon Dynasty's Ultimate Edition of THE KILLER is a great way to experience this dazzling Hong Kong action classic.

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