I mentioned last night that I was planning on breaking in my new copy of 'Hard Boiled' today. However, when I awoke this morning (well, this afternoon, technically), I came downstairs to discover the copy of 'The Killer' I had also ordered had arrived, so felt obliged to watch that first, given it was the first of the two (admittedly unconnected) movies. And I have to say: I actually enjoyed the movie even more this time around than I did the first time I watched it.
And I really enjoyed this first time round...
Hard Boiled is great fun - it's a ridiculously over-the-top action movie in which pistols deal as much damage as shotguns should, and shotguns are effectively grenade launchers. The comedy mishaps at the hospital also add to the bizarre atmosphere, but in a good way (an example of a bad way would be the scenes in 'Last House on the Left' with the woman who has a truck full of chickens, which completely destroyed what little atmosphere was created in the scenes relating to the main story. In fact, were it not for the last ten minutes or so being amazing, that would probably be one of the worst movies I have ever seen), so it comes as somewhat of a shock when the movie comes to such a serious conclusion. The Killer, on the other hand, whilst still classic John Woo - is also an incredibly intense dramatic piece, which sucks the viewer in and grips them right from the beginning, and never lets up. It somehow manages to rack up a higher single-man body count than 'The Killing Machine', whilst being as heart-wrenching as that bit at the end of 'Armageddon' where Bill Fichtner asks if he can shake the hand of the daughter of the bravest man he's ever met. I know that sounds retarded, but I can't actually think of many sad yet reassuring movies off the top of my head (yet I just named one with Michael Clarke Duncan in, so there's a fairly logical jump to a relatively respected film here. Not that I'll change my analogy now, mind you - one of the hardest guys I know refuses to watch Armageddon because he cried at the end), so roll with it. I'm trying to say it's a movie which makes you feel whilst still kicking some serious arse, is all.
Kick Arse Now! There'll be time for feelings later!
The storyline of The Killer is fantastic, with a 'good' assassin accidentally blinding a woman, and devoting himself to making sure he can get her the operation she needs so she will be able to see again, whilst at the same time, a maverick cop stuggles to deal justice within the confines of the law, and finds himself sympathizing with the man he has been tasked with arresting. The depth of the characters is fantastic, and although Inspector Li is for the most part your stereotypical hero from cop movies, the later scenes which pair him and Chow Yun Fat together see a transformation in the character, taking him beyond the conventional, and into truly remarkable territory. Chow Yun Fat's character Ah Jong is also an outstanding character - the caring hitman, way before Leon came out (who, incidentally, isn't that caring, since those cops he kills at the end aren't Stansfield's men, just a bunch of regular guys trying to do their job to pay the mortgage), and also the depth to which this extends - for Jennie, for his friend, for any innocents who may get caught up in his actions, even to the police men who are trying to put him away, or even looking for an excuse to kill him. As the scene by the river states: Li is an unusual cop, Ah Jong is an unusual killer. Of course, I watched the version from Hong Kong Legends with accurate subtitles, so can actually see all this depth in the movie - reading through the quotes on IMDB from the "English version" makes me cringe. I mean, seriously - some of those lines just sound awful, and I'm sure the movie would have been worse for it.
I wish I had photoshopped this. It was the Haitian Creole which really fucked it...
The Killer also happens to be one of the only movies where I've actively enjoyed characters not reloading weapons, or somehow running out of shots with an automatic and not knowing. Whilst I cringe in most films where someone goes through 30-odd rounds using an 8 shot gun, The Killer makes such a habit of it that you come to see it as being from the perspective of the individuals involved. Of course they're not counting their shots, and don't remember how many times they changed magazines - it's like you're remembering the events, and the way the camera cuts between shots helps to increase this feeling, employing a large number of quick cuts between angles and even different rooms whilst keeping the action flowing. When you start to enjoy this idea of characters whose guns only run out when it's necessary to the story, as opposed to when it would realistically occur, you can also appreciate the action so much more. There are numerous shots in which characters will have 7 or 8 bullets put in them, and seeing all these shots go off in the same frame is actually really impressive - especially in the shots where we have an individual firing and an individual being hit in the same shot. This gratuitous use of bullets also helps to keep the pace of the movie up, as all the action scenes become incredible dramatic set pieces - so where a real professional might use 4 bullets and the scene would be over, we instead get to see countless shots of one of our heroes firing, and dishing out severe damage. In doing this, John Woo has actually made gun violence appear "cool" in a movie with a lot of feeling and emotion, which can be extremely difficult to achieve. For example, The Matrix made gunplay look incredibly cool with the infamous "Government Lobby Scene", but I doubt anyone found Neo's death truly upsetting - because it is so incredibly hard to strike that balance between making violence cool, but the consequences of it shocking and disturbing. Whether this was Woo's intention when he set out to make the film is irrelevant - he achieved it. And I cannot for the life of me think of another movie where this has been achieved - especially on a scale so grand as this.
Good attempt, though...
Even the slower scenes in the film are outstanding, and so many of them are memorable it is incredible. Everything from Jennie's singing at the piano to Ah Jong's reaction when Fung double crosses him is just perfectly framed to make it stick in your mind, with the dragon boat sequence perhaps being the most memorable of all. The way in which we can tell exactly what's going through Ah Jong's mind as he considers taking the shot without any cues from a voice over, or long shots of his expression as he deliberates, is incredible, and the shot in which we see his Dragunov sink into the clear water when he is done with it is one of the most gorgeous shots ever to appear on film. The influence of The Killer on later films is also incredible - not only with so many mimicking its gunplay (jumping through the air firing in slow motion is pretty well a staple of the action genre these days), but with some of the more subtle influences. For example, the scene in which Fung goes to get Ah Jong's money from the Triad leader, and endures a merciless beating whilst still fighting back with incredible determination was obviously on Tony Scott's mind when he shot the scene in True Romance in which James Gandolfini beats Patricia Arquette. Hell, even the music is similar. And that's not the only thing to be taken from this film (though admittedly, it is probably the greatest reinventing of a piece of this movie).
This one's probably easier to masturbate to as well...
The Killer managed to take the Hong Kong film industry, up to that point only really famous for camp action comedies like "Jackie Chan's Police Story", and turn it into a serious rival for Hollywood. It's telling that even now, 22 years later, there still hasn't been a film from across the Channel which can rival the intensity of The Killer, and the fact that it rose to such prominence in the film industry even in the days before it had accurate subtitles, gives further credence to what I have been saying. The ending is so incredible, and so bleak, that I can't imagine it ever making its way into an American movie - and yet there was no other way to end the film. Woo's vision was perfect.
Unlike Jennie's. Amirite?
So, even on the second watch, I would have to say that The Killer is one of my favourite action movies of all time, and deserves the recognition that it rightly gets.
The influence of this film has been incredible - stretching from Leon (ranked #32 on IMDB's Top 250 list), to Rodriguez's work (Antonio Banderas kicking off and sliding along the floor whilst shooting a man coming toward him with two pistols having been duplicated exactly from a shot in the cathedral scene in The Killer), and through to True Romance as mentioned above (one of my favourite movies). But, it isn't just a great movie technically, either - it is a genuinely engrossing, thrilling and touching story, which goes far beyond what you would expect from an action movie, and is so breath taking at times each copy should come with a free oxygen mask. It is cool, and stylish, yet emotional, and heartfelt. It dances across genres with ease, whilst keeping its feet clearly routed in the action. And the dialogue, with the correct translations, is also pretty incredible. If you haven't seen this movie already, do so now, because I promise you won't regret it. I picked up a copy for £3.85, and all three hundred and eighty-five pence of that was well spent.
By the way, did I mention I'm friends with one of Chow Yun Fat's nephews?