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Thursday, April 1, 2010
  DVD Review: The Killer

The Killer pretty much changed my life.

Not in the sense where it got me through a life-threatening situation or even a particularly difficult time, or radically changed my existential path. But movies are a major part of my life (more so than most normal people, I’d wager), and action movies are probably my single favorite genre. When I saw The Killer for the first time on home video in my teenage video store-rat days, it quite literally changed the way I looked at action films. Every action movie that I’d been blown away by up to that point seemed like weak pabulum in
comparison to John Woo’s masterpiece of violence; my life as an action-movie fan is basically divided into pre- and post-Killer sections. So this is a pretty special day here on the Captivate movie blog, as it’s the first time I’ve gotten an opportunity (excuse?) to review a movie that’s in my own personal hall of fame. Which means I should probably can the preamble and get down to business.

The Killer is Hong Kong director John Woo’s 1989 magnum opus, about a hitman with a heart of gold (Chow Yun-Fat at the absolute pinnacle of his coolness) who accidentally blinds a lounge singer (Sally Yeh) while killing a nightclub full of people. His conscience won’t let him rest, so he re-enters her life as a mysterious paramour, taking one final job (without her knowledge, natch) in order to bankroll the surgery she needs to save her sight. Along the way gets the attention of a driven police detective (Danny Lee) determined to bring him to justice, but the unlikely duo eventually team up after Chow’s employers try to screw him out of his payment, and his life.

The tagline from the VHS box of the version of The Killer that I initially rented (and re-rented many times, until I eventually bought a copy for myself) is one of my favorites of all time: “One vicious hitman. One fierce cop. Ten thousand bullets.” And that’s about as astute a summary of the film as anything I could come up wity. John Woo’s style (lots of slow-motion, everyone firing nearly comical amounts of bullets without reloading) is fairly well-known nowadays, thanks mainly to his breakthrough American film, Face/Off, but it’s The Killer that sees Woo at the height of his powers as an action filmmaker. The gunfights in The Killer are simply awesome, and even more than 20 years later, you can see the movie as the template for hundreds of action movies made all over the world since. Dudes leaping and sliding around in slow motion, firing two guns as the scenery around them explodes with enemy fire, with optional pigeons or doves? That’s John Woo’s legacy, and it doesn’t get much better than The Killer.

The argument could probably be made that Hard Boiled, which re-teamed Woo and Chow in 1992 and is even more over-the-top (and is also available in a sweet two-disc set from Dragon Dynasty), is the purer action-movie experience, but The Killer’s emphasis on plot and emotion and its themes of honor and brotherhood – concepts almost entirely absent from Hard Boiled – overheated though they may be, gives it the edge in my heart. There’s something really endearing about how corny Woo is willing to get in The Killer; it’s the exact sort of thing that, even in 1989, a Hollywood film would replace with groan-inducing one-liners. Whether it’s the romance between Chow and Yeh or the bromance between Chow’s hitman and Lee’s detective, the dramatic beats in The Killer are just as exaggerated as the action sequences, and for me that’s part of the film’s appeal.

As much as I love The Killer (I’ve had a poster of it up in my home somewhere since I was in high school), it’s that very aspect that may not work for some viewers. There’s a completely unironic and totally straight-faced sense of melodrama that pervades the movie, and for some audiences it might veer into out-and-out silly territory. But even if you find the dialogue chuckle-inducing, I guarantee you will be pinned to your seat during the film’s many glorious shootouts. The movie eventually culminates in an utterly insane shootout in a church that’s only topped in action cinema by the 30-plus-minute gunfight in a hospital that caps Hard Boiled (not sure what’s up with Woo’s habit of staging his climactic action sequences in vaguely inappropriate locales, but it somehow adds to the tension and drama).

My feelings about it aside, The Killer is unquestionably one of the best – and most important – action movies made in the last 25 years. This new Dragon Dynasty DVD cleans up the picture beautifully (The Killer, unfortunately, has been available only sporadically in North America since the advent of DVD, and even then it was a fairly poor transfer bereft of features). The sound, however, is another issue; Dragon Dynasty’s recent Hard Boiled two-disc set features a weighty DTS 5.1 audio track (you can practically hear the bullets whizzing past your head), but The Killer only has mono tracks for English and Cantonese, which is unfortunate. What makes it even odder is that I actually already have an overseas DVD of The Killer with a nicely restored picture and a DTS audio track (I have a magic DVD player that plays discs from anywhere in the world), and I’d assumed when I first heard about this new North American release for The Killer that Dragon Dynasty would just repurpose that audio track. But no, as sharp as The Killer looks, the sound doesn’t match that level of quality. It’s a real missed opportunity that does take away from the experience a little, at least for a hardcore John Woo devotee like myself.

Overall, if you’re a fan of action movies, you need to see The Killer. If you only know Chow Yun-Fat from his Hollywood movies, find out why cinema geeks have been worshipping him for decades and watch The Killer. If you only know John Woo from Face/Off or Mission: Impossible II or another of his American films (like Paycheck or the truly atrocious Windtalkers, a movie so bad it’s almost akin to a war crime), then forget those and watch The Killer. More than two decades later, this is still one of the most amazing action films I’ve ever seen. The Killer comes with my highest possible recommendation.



This new Killer DVD is a pretty sweet package, but there’s one curious omission in particular, and that’s a commentary track from Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, which is only conspicuous by its absence because Logan does commentary on almost literally every Dragon Dynasty release, including their Hard Boiled set. It’s a minor omission, to be sure, but I’ve gotten so used to Logan’s commentaries (which are always wonderfully entertaining and insightful) that I sort of missed it. But it’s the sort of thing that only a nerd like me will notice; it’s certainly not a big deal.

That said, there’s a pretty good selection of extra features here. There’s a pair of Q&As with John Woo conducted at the American Cinematheque in 2002, one for The Killer and one for Hard Boiled. Both are lengthy and interesting, though the audio is a bit sketchy (particularly the Killer discussion), and coupled with Woo’s thickly accented English, it can make parts of the Q&As (conducted by American Cinematheque program director Dennis Bartok) almost entirely unintelligible.

There’s a separate interview with Woo that was done more recently (he looks considerably older than in the 2002 clips), and it covers quite a bit of ground. Also, it has optional subtitles, which makes it easier to follow. Woo discusses his influences like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, and talks about shooting The Killer largely without a script (he shot a lot of it from his treatment).

Also included is an odd little featurette called ‘The Killer Locations,’ in which a pretty Asian woman takes viewers on a travelogue of the Hong Kong locations where significant sequences were shot. It’s sort of weird, but for hardcore fans like myself who have seen The Killer dozens and dozens of times, it’s pretty cool seeing these locations today. It also works as a sort of a historical/travel piece about Hong Kong, and there’s some interesting tidbits of information included about the movie.

There’s also a collection of deleted scenes (some of which are included in longer international cuts of the film) that are fairly interesting, mostly character moments that presumably slowed the film down too much.

Overall this is a pretty excellent DVD for one of the best action movies of all time. If you’ve never owned The Killer, this is the version to get. If you have a previous release, it’s time for an upgrade. If you love action movies there’s no excuse for this DVD not being in your collection.

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Hi there fellow John Woo fan!

Just stumbled on your blog and review while googling reviews for this recently released (and long awaited!) Dragon Dynasty dvd.

Great review! :)

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