The Killer is a 1989 Hong Kong crime film written and directed by John Woo and starring Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee and Sally Yeh. Chow is triad assassin Ah Jong, who accidentally damages the eyes of the Jennie (Sally Yeh) with his gun’s muzzle flash during one of his hits. He later discovers that if Jennie does not have an expensive operation she will go blind. To get the money for Jennie, Ah Jong decides to perform one last hit—and it will indeed be his last.
A police detective, Li Ying (Danny Lee), spots the assassin completing the job but he escapes. Triad leader Hay Wong Hoi double crosses Ah Jong, and instead of paying him, sends a group of hitmen to kill him. During Ah Jong’s escape from the Triad, a young child is injured by a stray bullet. After dispatching the attackers, Ah Jong rushes the child to the hospital while being followed by Li and his partner Sgt. Tsang. Once the child regains consciousness at the casualty ward, Ah Jong escapes Li and Tsang who becomes obsessed with Fat’s act of goodwill.
The detectives stakeout Jennie at her apartment and plan to arrest him the next time he visits her. Ah Jong visits Jennie and is caught in an ambush from which he manages to scramble away. Li and Tsang explain to Jennie that Ah Jong was the assassin who blinded her at the nightclub. Ah Jong meets with his Triad manager, Fung Sei (Chu Kong), and demands his payment for finishing the job. Fung Sei brings a suitcase for Ah Jong, who discovers it to be filled with sheets of blank paper before finding himself in the middle of a Triad ambush. He dispatches all of the Triads, but leaves his old friend Fung Sei alive. The next day, after Fung Sei’s pleas for Wong Hoi fall on deaf ears, Ah Jong does a fantastic hit-and-run on Wong Hoi’s car, wounding the Triad leader and killing his driver and bodyguard.
Li begins to close-in on Ah Jong after Tsang follows Fung Sei; Tsang is killed after revealing the location of his home. Because of their friendship, Fung Sei leaves a large stockpile of weaponry for Ah Jong. The home is another ambush; Li is first to attack followed by a group of Triad hitmen. Li gets caught in the middle of the crossfire between Ah Jong and the Triad. Ah Jong and Li flee, and while Ah Jong’s wounds are mended, they find themselves bonding and becoming friends– it seems strangers can make good bedfellows. Ah Jong tells Li that should anything happen to him, Li should try to have Ah Jong’s eyes donated for Jennie’s surgery; otherwise, he is to use Ah Jong’s money to fly her overseas to have her surgery performed by more experienced doctors.
Li, Ah Jong, and Jennie wait in a church for Fung Sei to return with Ah Jong’s money. Fung Sei arrives with the money, horribly beaten by Wong Hoi’s gangsters who have followed him. He is mortally wounded when the hitmen barge into the church. After Ah Jong ends Fung Sei’s misery, he and Li engage in a long and bloody shootout with the Triad all over the church. The battle ends with a Mexican standoff between Ah Jong, Li and Wong Hoi. Ah Jong manages to wound Wong Hoi, but the Triad leader lands two bullets in Ah Jong’s eyes before the latter dies of his wounds. When a police squadron arrives in the scene, Wong Hoi begs to be taken into custody. Frustrated by the outcome of the battle, Li fatally shoots Wong Hoi before he himself is arrested.
The Killer is an important and influential film for both Western and Asian filmmakers. Film scholars have noted the similarities between Woo’s style and The Killer with the films La Femme Nikita (1990) and Léon (1994) directed by French director Luc Besson. Kenneth E. Hall described Léon as having the similar character configuration of a hitman and the person he protects. In Nikita, the main character’s crisis of conscience after performing a number of hits is also seen in The Killer. And, not surprisingly, Quentin Tarantino developed films that were influenced by The Killer. In the film Jackie Brown, Tarantino wrote dialog referencing The Killer. No references to the film are made in the original novel.
The Killer was also influential in hip hop music. American hip hop artist, and Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon released his critically praised debut album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. (1995) that sampled numerous portions of dialog from the film. RZA, the producer of the album described the albums themes by stating that “Rae and Ghost was two opposite guys as far as neighborhoods were concerned, I used John Woo’s The Killer. You got Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee. They have to become partners to work shit out.” Woo apparently felt honored that the group sampled The Killer and asked for no monetary return from them.
Director John Woo has described The Killer as being about “honor and friendship,” “trying to find out if there is something common between two people” and as a “romantic poem.” The structure of the film follows two men on the opposite side of the law who find a relation to each other in their opposition of a greater evil, Wong Hoi, the leader of the Triad. The relationship between the two main characters was influenced by the Spy vs. Spy comics from Alfred E Newman’s Mad Magazine. It is reported that Woo recalled “when I was young I was fascinated with the cartoon–I love it very much…the white bird and the black bird are always against each other, but deep in their heart, they are still friendly, and the idea came from that.”
Though the film received praise and box office success outside of Hong Kong, The Killer’s success around the world made several Hong Kong filmmakers jealous: “It created a certain kind of resentment in the Hong Kong film industry. One thing I can say for sure is, the American, European, Japanese, Korean and even the Taiwanese audiences and critics appreciated The Killer a lot more than it was in Hong Kong.”
Naturally because of Hollywood’s lack of imagination, an American remake of the killer is in the works. Director John H Lee will be remaking the film which is supposed to take place in Chinatown, Korea town and south-central Los Angeles. Luckily, the remake will be produced by John Woo and is set to be filmed in 3-D. Let’s be honest, a remake of John Woo’s The Killer was inevitable. While this flick may not be as well-loved as Woo’s Hard Boiled it’s still a master class in acting, heroic bloodshed and ultra-violent gunplay. Unfortunately, US audiences largely refuse to see films created in other countries probably because they can’t read subtitles not to mention anything starring a non-white actor, or, failing that, Will Smith, so it’s almost surprising that it’s taken this long for Hollywood to decide that the film ought to be recreated with a white lead and an American setting.
My guess is the remake will be a piece of film junk that only insults the original masterpiece created by Woo in the late 1980’s. With any luck, however, it may be as good as the remake of Death of Samurai released last year. But I’m not betting on it.
What can you say about this movie? It was powerful, influential and ahead of its time much like many of John Woo’s films. One of JPFMovies trademark sayings is “a little Woo goes a long way.” Now imagine what a lot of Woo does and you’ve got The Killer.