Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat) is a killer with a conscience, a hitman who tries his best to ensure nobody gets hurt except the person he's supposed to murder. So when he gets the word to execute a Triad boss, on receipt of the suitcase full of cash he heads over to a nightclub restaurant where he knows his target is spending time, and starts shooting. He encounters more resistance than he would expect, so while he achieves his goal and kills the boss, his henchmen including staff at the club let rip with a barrage of gunfire which misses Ah Jong, but when he fires back he accidentally catches the singer Jennie (Sally Yeh) by shooting near her eyes...
The Killer was probably the Hong Kong film which made Westerners sit up and take notice of the region's rich vein of action movies from the eighties and nineties, and director John Woo was the man who spearheaded that style. Of course, this was not the first time Hong Kong cinema had made an impact across the world, because their martial arts efforts from Bruce Lee onwards were responsible for raising the profile to quite an extent in the seventies, but with Woo it was demonstrated to foreigners that there was more to their entertaiment than busting kung fu moves. He may have started out there himself, but his status and influence rested on productions like this.
It was no coincidence that Hong Kong New Wave maestro Tsui Hark was producing, though oddly he was not a fan of what Woo did with the story and predicted a flop would be the result; he was half right as The Killer, or Dip huet seung hung as it was known originally, failed to set the box office alight in its home territory (one excuse proffered was the audience had no appetite for such things so soon after the Tiananmen Square massacre), but since then it turned into the most visible example of the gunplay genre with all its extravagant setpieces, overripe emotions, and tragedy just around the corner. While to the outsider's eye this could have appeared histrionic and laughable, funnily enough it did not play out that way.
That was thanks to a curiously placid heart, as if the lead characters realised the crisis they had been dreading was finally here and now they could do nothing but keep calm and carry on, as the old phrase goes. Contributing to that to the greatest extent was star Chow Yun-Fat in the role that made him an actor to reckon with on the world stage, even if those Hollywood roles did little for him and his fans preferred to see him on home territory: nobody was going to claim Bulletproof Monk was doing him the same favours his John Woo movies did. Here he exuded an effortless cool, whether handling his pistols which never ran out of bullets or exchanging a tender moment with the woman whose sight he wants to save.
But it wasn't a one-man show, as there was another star here, Danny Lee as the cop Li Ying assigned to track Ah Jong down and finding more of a connection with him than anybody he has ever met before. Some have interpreted this as a homoerotic relationship, but really it's that both hitman and policeman have found a soulmate because they're so much alike: it's more the strength of brotherly love than anything else. Although Woo said he owed a debt to Martin Scorsese and Jean-Pierre Melville in constructing the work, you could also view The Killer as a Far East, bullet-ridden updating of Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession too, as the melodrama centred around righting a wrong taken out on an innocent was very much the engine which drove the plot. Would Ah Jong redeem himself? That said, it was those action sequences which were as exciting as these movies got, with car chases, assassins, acrobatic gunplay galore and the need to protect the innocent uppermost in the structure. It was a symphony where every instrument played their part. Music by Lowell Lo.
One of the most influential directors working in the modern action genre. Hong Kong-born Woo (real name Yusen Wu) spent a decade making production-line martial arts movies for the Shaw Brothers before his melodramatic action thriller A Better Tomorrow (1987) introduced a new style of hyper-realistic, often balletic gun violence.
It also marked Woo's first collaboration with leading man Chow-Yun Fat, who went on to appear in a further three tremendous cop/gangster thrillers for Woo - A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and Hard Boiled. The success of these films in Hong Kong inspired dozens of similar films, many pretty good, but few with Woo's artistry or emphasis on characters as well as blazing action.
In 1993, Woo moved over to Hollywood, with predictably disappointing results. Face/Off was fun, but the likes of Broken Arrow, Windtalkers and Mission: Impossible 2 too often come across as well-directed, but nevertheless generic, studio product. Needs to work with Chow-Yun Fat again, although his return to Hong Kong with Red Cliff proved there was life in the old dog yet.