THE KILLER (1989)
****/**** Image C- Sound C Extras B
starring Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Chu Kong
written and directed by John Woo
***/**** Image C Sound B Extras A+
starring Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung, Teresa Mo, Philip Chan
screenplay by Barry Wong
directed by John Woo
by Walter Chaw It's possible to try to detail the history of John Woo at the beginning of the Heroic Bloodshed movement in Hong Kong--how, with the first two A Better Tomorrows (the second of which features a genuinely astonishing amount of violence and the infamous subtitled malapropism "don't fuck on my family!"), he created in buddy Chow Yun-Fat a fashion/role model in the James Dean mold, and how he eventually left for Hollywood's golden shore at the service of Jean-Claude Van Damme and John Travolta (twice) and Nicolas Cage (twice). It's possible--but Planet Hong Kong, City on Fire, Hong Kong Babylon, and on and on have done a pretty fair job of it already. Better to say that Woo's group of films from this period--the A Better Tomorrow pictures, his acknowledged masterpiece The Killer, his flawed but undeniably bombastic Hard-Boiled, and his ambitious, deeply felt Bullet in the Head--meant the world to me as a Chinese kid growing up in a predominantly white area in predominantly white Colorado. I saw a devastated 35mm print of The Killer at a midnight show in CU Boulder's Chem 140 auditorium in the early-'90s. It was dubbed (a mess), the screening was packed, and I, for maybe the first time in my life (and still one of the only times in my life), felt a genuine kinship with my countrymen and a certain pride in being Chinese. Here, after all, was the best action film I'd ever seen, and it wasn't John McTiernan's or Robert Zemeckis's or Steven Spielberg's name above the title, but someone called John Woo. And he was directing not Bruce Willis nor Arnie nor Sly nor any of the tools he would eventually work with in the United States, but a handsomer version of me with the same last name. As existential epiphanies go, it wasn't bad.
Strangely enough, screening Woo's Red Cliff almost two decades later facilitated another existential epiphany--giving me my name back in a way too boring to detail. Sufficed to say that John Woo is the most important filmmaker in the construction of my personal identity, and having the opportunity to write about The Killer and Hard-Boiled is an invitation that's as crippling as it is exhilarating. Here goes. Woo at his best is a director and choreographer of high opera. Gory, comically broad, psychologically pat, emotionally right there on the surface, the two pictures under scrutiny here, especially, are shadow plays interested in the relationship between men and how fate can move matched souls in opposite directions. Women are secondary devices in the evolution of men, evolutions that generally allow for moments of self-discovery before baptisms (and rebirths) in orgasmic gouts of gunfire and bloodshed. They're about the male reproductive urge gone lizard, the idea of civilization as a fairytale that men tell one another to better cope with the reality that there's nothing left once the smoke clears except ruptured flesh and spent shells. That's the meat. The framework consists of poignant freeze-frames, slow-motion tracking shots, aggressively self-conscious matching shots, the abuse of doves as ironic metaphor for broken promises of harmony (or corrupted gestures of grace), and dolorous scores used to push melancholy to the brink of maudlin. There's a reason Woo's Bullet in the Head has been compared to Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter: the whole of it plays like the Russian Roulette sequence. Crucially, Cimino is the director most like Woo in terms of his complete command of film as a visual medium and his attraction to the genre of epic tragedy.
Jong (Chow) is an assassin who, like a lot of assassins in films like The Killer, agrees to one last hit before retirement to a luxury cave/island/bungalow for the rest of his life. His contact and best friend Fung (Chu Kong) wants this for him. The girl he's accidentally blinded (though she doesn't know it was him), Jennie (Sally Yeh), wants this for him. Even Insp. Ying (Danny Lee) kind of wants this for him. But the fates have something else in mind. Jong wrongs crime lord Wong (the late, great Shing Fui-on), master of about a million white-jumpsuited minions, and decides that when everything is temporary, to die with honour is the only eternal reward. Bombastic and sentimental, The Killer is encapsulated by one long expository sequence during which Ying (diametrically paired with Jong, which, homophonically, completes the "Yang" of the Ying/Yang dyad) re-enacts a shootout from the point-of-view of Jong ambushed in his apartment as Woo completes a 180-degree circular pan that swaps out Ying for Jong while Sally sings a love song on the soundtrack. So obvious it's effective, Woo's thematic obsession with how men are driven by identical impulses is underscored tirelessly in dialogue, staging, and of course glorious action.1 It's enough to at least partially explain the coining of the two-fisted pistol-packing favoured by Woo protagonists, as well as the face-to-face stalemates that occupy central positions in the majority of his pictures.
Rumoured to have taken somewhere in the neighbourhood of two weeks to stage and film, The Killer's climax comes in a Catholic church as Ying and Jong join forces to repel an endless flood of henchmen in there among the pews, dumb to the slaughter of innocents and demolition of holy relics--affirmation that in all the world the only thing that means anything is the masculine will to power. The drive to raze and restore from the ashes finds its signifiers in The Killer in the subplot of Jong's desire to pay for a corneal transplant for blind Jennie2, in the decidedly Catholic subtext of resurrection and redemption, and in a scene at a beach where Jong stops to save a little girl caught in the crossfire of a movie that gleefully massacres, conservatively estimating, around two hundred people. The church sequence is a marvel of inventive gunplay--if it were porn, it'd be the scene you rewind until the tape breaks--meticulously timed and choreographed, so that it would play with profit as counterpoint to the Hollywood musical's Technicolor glory days. The closest analogues in the United States to Woo's Hong Kong output, in fact, are films like Oklahoma, The King and I, and West Side Story--films that trade in base emotionality and archetypal images to, basically, set up the extended set-piece money shots. Like those musicals, Woo uses every prop and architectural feature of his set (a painter's scaffolding has a very particular referent in Hong Kong's wuxia tradition), and in so doing provides closure to the film's conversations about honour and duty as they inform the secret lives of men. If it's just this side of ridiculous (not always this side, as in its second-most-remembered scene of two lovers crawling past each other unaware of their proximity to one another), it's ridiculous in the Richard Wagner sense: the gotterdamerung of the Hong Kong heroic bloodshed cycle.
If you haven't seen The Killer, in other words, it's sort of pointless to have a conversation about the modern action film. It would take a true student of this culture and its films to deliver a real bookend to the church sequence at last (Tarantino and his "House of Blue Leaves"). I'd argue that not even the hospital sequence that comprises fully the last third of Hard-Boiled cooks with the same operatic hyperbole as The Killer's church sequence--that Hard-Boiled makes the mistake of substituting volume for perfection, although, it probably goes without saying, its gunplay is still pretty cool. In it, Chow switches sides, from killer with a heart of gold to rogue cop with a heart of gold--the transformation itself notable for its honouring of Woo's belief in the dual nature of Man. Chow's Lt. Yuen, dubbed "Tequila" for his drink of choice, I guess (or simply because it sounds tough), is busy breaking Triad balls until one particularly vicious cocksman, Alan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), declines to shoot him, despite having the drop on him. Turns out that Alan is also a "heavy duty cop" in the Tequila mold, in deep cover under Johnny Wong's (national treasure Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) criminal organization, and once it's discovered that the two are on opposite sides of the same righteous gunslinging coin, they decide to join forces to kill a couple hundred people--a lot of them either unarmed or just sorta minding their own business. When talking to his confessor/barkeep (John Woo himself), Tequila composes this thesis statement about his newly-discovered brother-in-arms: "He's a true friend. Right or wrong, doesn't matter." Indeed, Hard-Boiled isn't about the laws of Man, it's about the laws of men (late in the game, the police chief threatens the director of a hospital with...castration)--the ones that say the only way men are allowed to show affection is through phalluses and explosions.
It's fair to wonder, too, about the role of the looming (1997) return of Hong Kong to Communist China in the Hong Kong films from this brief, incandescent period. Something in Woo's reluctance to define sides for his heroes speaks to an essential duality in the Chinese nature that doesn't hold much love for Communist waxwork leaders but holds possibly less love for colonial masters, no matter how (recently) benevolent. Certainly the anxiety of looming apocalypse informs the intrusion in Woo's films of extreme, arbitrary violence into traditional places of succour and sanctuary. A few dozen babies disturbed in their cradles speaks volumes to a future forged for them through not merely centuries of bloodshed but, it's implied, in all the conflicts to come, too.
What injures Hard-Boiled is its extended exposition, its interest in breaking a musical code in the early going (grinding the film to a halt), and the decision to contextualize its storyline, robbing Woo of the myth-making with which he's most comfortable. Small wonder that his adaptation of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Red Cliff) might yet prove to be his masterpiece. In a lot of ways, Hard-Boiled fulfills the same summary function as Hitch's North by Northwest, in that it's a greatest-hits compendium manufactured with almost too much facility--a consummate work of passionate intensity told by a confident liar who's borrowing (borrowing back in some instances) scenes from Die Hard and The Terminator. Where The Killer recklessly, romantically dives into its expansive, splendid Greekness, Hard-Boiled, in attempting to create an Asian noir, proves a less interesting, more affected version of Woo's A Better Tomorrow crime procedurals. Tellingly, the film's best portions are the bird restaurant shootout, which serves as an almost purely symbolic prologue, and the final hospital-clearing (beginning with a conversation about dreams and alternate lives), which abandons attempts at resolving the literal story in favour of dipping the Woo protagonists in a primordial soup of bullet-adjudicated triage, unbreakable man-on-man alliances, and ultimate sacrifices in favour of the possibility for someone (not them, but someone) to enjoy the luxury of non-murderous discourse. At the 100-minute mark exactly, Hard-Boiled becomes the film it should have been its entire running time: this unbelievably fierce, unbelievably sexy charnel house--although this only manages to elevate the picture slightly above the similarly-encumbered, similarly astonishingly-ended A Better Tomorrow II. The film is a life-support system for its third act; and, perhaps sensing an end to his fecundity in this time and place, it will be Woo's last Asian production until Red Cliff. Lamentably, it will also be the last film he's made to date with muse/avatar Chow Yun-Fat.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Killer and Hard-Boiled come to Blu-ray courtesy the Weinsteins under their Dragon Dynasty imprimatur, distributed in Canada as a bundle from Alliance. It's a handsome-enough twofer on the bookshelf, less so on the ol' plasma. The Killer docks in a 1080 interlaced (!) 1.85:1 transfer that lacks any real detail--skin looks Vaseline-smoothed (not to mention fake-baked)--while crushing shadows with dense blacks. It's murky and thick with grain/noise, especially in its well-lit sequences, and the worn appearance of the scene on the beach suggests to me that we're a long way from the negative here. I popped in my Fox Lorber DVD for comparison's sake and, heaven's to wetsy, it's actually significantly better. The DD 5.1 English dub should be avoided out of principle, but the only Cantonese option is in DD 2.0 mono. Then again, as the dub track is lacking in anything resembling surround sound or low end, it's not like it's significantly more immersive. What's the deal, Dragon Dynasty?
A new "Interview with John Woo" (24 mins.) has the typically humble director discussing at length his feelings on The Killer and its role in shaping the course of his post-HK career, though any insight into the apparent schism between him and Chow is left to conjecture. An "American Cinematheque Q&A" spotlights both The Killer (35 mins., SD) and Hard-Boiled (12 mins., SD) in lovely, relatively in-depth detail; it won't hold a lot of surprises for students of the films, but it allows Woo to retell them again in a more organized milieu. I did like his honouring, openly and honestly, Jean-Pierre Melville and the real extent to which Melville's Le Samourai influenced The Killer. In truth, The Killer is a loose remake. "The Killer Locations" (9 mins., SD) is exactly what it sounds like, while five deleted scenes (7 mins., SD) are in rough shape and mainly comprised of alternate takes. Not subtitled, they also fail to explain why it appears as though Wong's arm is blown off and then, magically, reattached in the movie proper.
Hard-Boiled looks similarly shitty on Blu-ray despite the upgrade to 1080p. (Note that the aspect ratio is 1.85:1 (as it should be), not 2.35:1 as listed on the cover art.) Overprocessed verging on dupey, with no obvious effort expended in cleaning the particulate mess in any meaningful way, this is what happens when people who don't love these movies are put in charge of mastering them. The colours are better than they are on The Killer, but that's probably owing to the fact that so much of the film takes place in a fluorescent-lit hospital instead of a candlelit church. Ditto skin tones, which hew closer to naturalism but still a few too many shades towards George Hamilton. At least the 5.1 DTS-HD MA remix of the original Cantonese audio offers a genuine upgrade (that mono track is on board as well in DD 2.0), although it mostly just broadens the front channels during the gunfights--sporadically and randomly at that. On second thought, the only thing great about it is that you don't have to turn up the volume as much to hear it. That being said, the gunfire sounds meaty in the ol' subwoofer. Not bad with lowered expectations.
What makes Hard-Boiled a get on the format is a commentary track by Bey Logan that provides an extraordinary wealth of information, from the title's original Cantonese meaning ("Spicy Hand, Smart Detective") to cursory analysis of the film's themes, to some delving into the whys and wherefores of Woo's shifting of focus from killers to cops. Fascinating, passionate, and only sometimes narrating the action on screen, Logan has done his research and demonstrates a great understanding of what it is that these tracks should be all about. "A Baptism of Fire" (38 mins., SD) is a by-now-familiar interview-type thing with Woo talking about his love for Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood and so on, his inspiration for making Hard-Boiled (which Logan articulates with more clarity), and how he allowed a sort of weird democracy on set to dictate directorial decisions. Chief among them, the survival of a key character because his grips and lighting guys argued for it. Hoo boy. "Art Imitates Life" is an interview with real ex-cop Philip Chan (15 mins., HD), the guy who plays the police chief in the film, clearly inserted as filler because Chow, Leung, Wong, et al declined to participate. The most interesting part of the interview is a backdrop that includes a giant blow-up of the spine for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Weird. "Mad Dog Bites Again" (24 mins., SD) is an interview with distinctive-looking baddie Kwok Choi, who, like Chan, really doesn't have anything to say. A "Hard-Boiled Location Guide with Kea Wong" (9 mins., SD) is a few minutes spent with the saucy Ms. Wong as she walks around Hong Kong showing locations where the film was shot. Mmmm. Mmmmm. It bears mentioning that a few supplements mentioned as being on the original Dragon Dynasty releases (a making-of for the video game sequel Stranglehold, an interview with Terence Chang, an HK trailer gallery) are not obviously available on the disc. Originally published: January 26, 2011.
1. So single-minded is Woo's obsessive riffing on this theme that it even appears in the misfires Hard Target and Broken Arrow before maturing into a brief Hollywood apex with the exuberantly lawless Face/Off. ("Riffing," perhaps not incidentally, exactly how we're introduced to Chow's character Tequila in Hard-Boiled.) return
2. A good euphemism for rebirth, the restoration of sight, but it has nothing on the rescue of an entire ward of newborns in Hard-Boiled. return