Woo's The Killer is one of those rare films whose evident
flaws somehow add to the experience (guilty pleasure?), instead
of detracting from it. It's an exercise in quantity over quality,
but the importance of this film goes well beyond that. It's
certainly not a triumph of subtlety, nor is it particularly
adept in delivering social commentary behind its extreme sentimentalism
and melodramatic events. Yet, it has a lot of heart, like
Chow Yun-Fat's character. It takes its overly-commercial denomination
and delivers something that is interesting, involving and
new (to some degree).
Woo didn't create anything from
scratch like some affirm, but instead added a new layer to
old themes. He presented them with new energy, great editing
and an amazing sense of pace. Even with all the flaws of his
oeuvre and the traps he constantly fell into (he never seemed
to be able to contain himself when dealing with emotions),
he had the ability to hold your attention and sustain suspense
for the whole film.
Woo's Heroic Bloodshed era was his
way of retelling the martial arts classics of the seventies.
From Ancient China, the heroic character was transferred into
urban settings with Western connotations. Woo's characters
feature the same code of honor showcased by the heroes in
the film (and TV) adaptations of Gu Long's novels, and their
roles in society are similar. Woo's work was also greatly
influenced by American gangster movies of the Golden Age,
the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, and Yakuza films. Of course,
he also learned a lot from Coolie Killer (Terry Tong,
1982) and The Long Arm of The Law (Johnny Mak, 1984),
both of which prepared audiences for the genre a few years
before Woo's A Better Tomorrow.
Chow Yun-fat is Jeff, a professional
killer who accidentally injures a young nightclub singer named
Jenny (Sally Yeh). She risks becoming blind if she can't find
the money to undergo surgery, and Jeff decides to take one
last job to pay for the operation. However, things go wrong
and he's spotted by a cop (Danny Lee). What follows is the
building relationship between Jeff and the cop against the
backdrop of a much bigger conflict between justice, crime
and love. Like the heroes in many Yakuza films, the conflict
between giri (sense of duty) and ninjo (instinct,
inner feeling) brings suffering to the characters. It also
brings them together, creating a bond between the two due
to what they have in common.
Chow and Lee are able to shine
even with Woo's manipulative, one-dimensional direction. Chow
in particular is able to give passion and inner conflict to
his character with just a facial expression. Although he often
overdoes it, his performance is rich and convincing. His Jeff
is a mix of Alain Delon in Le Samourai, Ken Takakura's
Yakuza heroes and Wang Yu's swordsmen. While Sally Yeh gives
a decent performance, her character is just a plot device.
She's just used to render Jeff's struggle more emotional,
and the character isn't given much depth. The only time where
this changes is when Jenny holds a gun, determined to protect
Jeff from Lee. The character of Sidney (Paul Chu Kong) is
almost as interesting as the two main leads. He's the poster
boy for what corruption can do to honor and friendship. His
conflict is just as painful as Jeff's.
The real problem comes when we go
beyond the major characters. Woo's notion that there can be
a code of honor, no matter what background you come from,
is welcome. But he delivers this message while depicting bad
and good in a very childish, black and white way. Woo's effort
is laudable, but he's not someone who can handle those themes
with the subtlety and the realism necessary to make an impact.
His heroes aren't shades of gray because they're real, but
because he paints over black and white characters with his
heavy hand. If you buy it, you'll be convinced by the conflict.
Otherwise it feels a little manipulative.
Still, given those shortcomings,
the film works on entertainment value. And it does so in a
remarkable way. Its abundance of style, and the juxtaposition
between romantic icons and poetic, "beautiful" violence
- served with some of the best editing you'll ever see - makes
for incredible scenes. Even with Woo's penchant for heavy-handed
delivery, he draws truly memorable moments out of his cliché-ridden
plot and tired characters. The first and final acts are simply
a triumph of pacing and easily rank amongst the best action
scenes ever filmed.
Woo is not as important a figure
as other directors from the First and Second New Wave (Ann
Hui, Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan, Tsui Hark, Yim Ho, Clara
Law and others) for the artistic quality of his cinematic
output, and the social/political/economical commentary he
offers. He's instead important for his influence in shaping
commercial cinema and the action genre for years to come.
His films crossed over with a new audience from the West,
making Hong Kong Cinema even more successful than it already
was. This film is a healthy history lesson, helping us understand
what we see in today's action films.
Put in the right context, The
Killer is one of those films that overcome all their shortcomings
and deliver entertainment from beginning to end. Your reaction
to it mainly depends on the amount of manipulation you can
stomach, otherwise its operatic, Shakespearean panache will
attract you. This is must-see cinema. Just don't expect subtlety
and restraint and you'll be fine. (LunaSea 2002)