Director John Woo’s Hong Kong gangster phase included this overwrought bullet ballet, which is as much an action flick as it is a love letter to the screen charisma of Chow Yun-Fat.
Consider the way a police inspector (Danny Lee) describes Chow’s hit man to a sketch artist: “In his thirties, with some crow’s feet. He has a manly air about him. He’s a bit different from your average murderer. He’s very calm, quite intelligent. His eyes are very alert. Full of compassion. Full of passion.” We’ve gone from a clinical report to an ode.
Woo’s technique – a mélange of slow motion, freeze frames and repeated insert shots, all often choreographed to yearning karaoke music – essentially elevates genre elements to a mythological realm. You can laugh at all the candles and fluttering doves, but until they became overused (Mission: Impossible II) they were simply more of Woo’s grand gestures, along with the two-handed gun battles and tense standoffs. In The Killer, and with Chow at the center, it was all still fresh.
There’s also something operatic about the plot, in which Chow accidentally wounds a karaoke singer (Sally Yeh) during a gunfight, damaging her eyesight. He subsequently falls in love with her and tries to fund an operation to restore her vision, even though his actions get him caught between the mob and the police.
For all the bullets that are spent, The Killer spends just as much time ruminating on the likes of honor, friendship and even the allure of guns themselves. “Easy to pick up,” Chow observes at one point, “difficult to put down.” The Killer is hardly a cautionary tale, but contrary to what its blunt title implies, it is a complicated one.