TSBH: The Killer (John Woo, 1989)

This is it – the fruitful, bullet-blanketed crescendo of my ongoing project. Although presently pleased, I’ve been led to believe that Woo’s succeeding efforts are even bolder as epitomes of this targeted subgenre, the mere thought of such instilling within me an uncontrollable glee. Focusing on none other than Chow Yun-Fat as titular professional Ah Jong, The Killer‘s opening moments chronicle the man’s tragic disillusionment following the accidental blinding of an innocent bystander and lounge singer, Jennie (Sally Yeh). Ah Jong’s compassionate tendencies strengthen tenfold from here on out, his path toward righting his wrong hamstrung by the “one last job” that goes tits-up at the hands of his employer.

Woo imbues the thematically familiar with an almost schlocky melodramatic sensationalism amid balletic action benchmarks. The forced but effective chemistry between members of opposing factions, good and bad respectively, does its job in punctuating narrative simplicity with a non-oppressive dual sympathy card. On one hand, we have the slick and honorable Ah Jong: hardened through experience but morally upstanding; a steadfast adherence to going straight outweighing a need to do anything but grant Jennie her cornea transplant. On the other: archetypal supercop Inspector Li, of whom too thoroughly applies law abiding stubbornness to all aspects of his profession as he very well should.

Although entirely and familiarly at odds, we never can fully bring ourselves to root for one side or the other given the hotheaded young crime lord that wants Ah Jong and Jennie out of the picture. Ah Jong and Lee subsequently unite against this common enemy, forming a bond that transforms the at-first one-man army into a duo to be reckoned with throughout many a high-style instance of gunfire and bloodshed. The Killer‘s immediate influence on contemporary American actioners – slow-mo and the like a la The Matrix and so forth – remain apparent throughout said instances as the body counts rise.

As an epitome of both HK action cinema and the genre as a whole, John Woo’s nigh-masterpiece is also a masterclass in effective trope employment. The narrative, albeit agreeably light and prone to bouts of purposeful cheese, is affecting enough as emotionality remains key in perpetuating character motives. While the action is far-and-away of the highest possible quality – aptly fusing practical effects with Woo’s calculated technical wizardry – The Killer is as much a well-rounded piece of HK cinema as it is a frequently lauded cornerstone of the medium.

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