The Killer (1989)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-03-09
“The Killer” is John Woo’s emblematic Heroic Bloodshed movie, full of images and devices that were pilfered, plagiarized and parodied by other filmmakers for years after its release. Bodies pile up everywhere, bullets fly by the hundreds and individuals not only survive being beaten and shot but are stronger after their ordeal.

Chow Yun-Fat is the stoic hero at his most implacable. Jeff has a code—it is a way of life that may as well be part of his DNA. He is a throwback to the time when outlaws still had standards of behavior that didn’t change. Shoot him, stab him, boil him in oil, he won’t betray his comrades, including his employer. He takes full responsibility for his actions and expects others to do the same. Unfortunately he is the only one of his kind left and there is no Endangered Species Act to protect noble hitmen. It isn’t surprising that, even though he is unaware that he fired the shot that blinded the hard luck singer Jennie, he feels he must make sure she recovers and must raise the money for her operation.

Danny Lee is another familiar character—his Inspector Li Ying is a cop who recognizes a kindred spirit, even if that person is on the other side of the law. Inspector Li has his own code of conduct and so as he begins to understand Jeff he also begins to respect him. Both Inspector Li and Jeff have sidekicks. Kenneth Tsang is Sergeant Tsang who works for Li and Paul Chu is Sidney Fung, formerly Jeff’s comrade in arms and now his agent. Shing Fui-On rounds things out as Hay Wong Hoi an extremely repellant bad guy.

Sidney Fong is the real key to the movie. He is the only character who changes and he serves as the connection between Jeff and Hay. Sidney was once a killer—he may be just a bit too old, not quite quick enough, perhaps has lost his edge. Whatever the case he is still completely involved in the murder for hire business. He knows everyone, is trusted by everyone and has himself lived by the code of the honorable hitman. But there is something a bit soft about Sidney—as brilliantly played by Chu he is depressed, guilt ridden and unable to function very well anymore. When he betrays Jeff it isn’t that much of a surprise—it almost seems inevitable—but when he decides that he will risk his life to get Jeff’s payment from Hay Wong Hoi there is a surprise in store for the audience.

One assumes either that Sidney will manage to steal the money or get it by some subterfuge—Hay isn’t all that smart, just vicious—or die in the attempt, thereby valorizing his life with a noble (for a criminal) death and showing even more how ghastly Hay Wong Hoi is. Instead Sidney is able to meet with Hay and actually gets the drop on him twice. He also decimates Hoy’s gang while being pummeled half to death. The beating that Sidney takes is extremely brutal and unmerciful and is obviously in expiation for his betrayal of Jeff. Sidney is a very buttoned-down, uptight type of person—he keeps his collar buttoned and his tie tightly tied even when his shirt is soaked in blood. He is doing his best to survive and return to Jeff with the money he is owed. That he accidentally leads both Hay and Inspector Li to Jeff is fitting—as Jeff’s agent his job is to put people together.

Sally Yeh had a thankless role. Most of it, of course, was as a plot device to give Jeff a reason to stay in the business and do one more hit. When she was blinded her flailing and thrashing around was very realistic and a bit scary—it was one of her only chances to really act in the movie and she made the most of it.

That Jeff and Inspector Li will end up on the same side, fighting against Hay and his inexhaustible supply of henchmen, is a given but it is well motivated and makes complete sense within the context of the movie. It is made more credible by Jeff’s initial reluctance to join forces with the law.

Ultimately having Inspector Li Ying on your tail or having Jeff get a contract on your life means the same thing—your days as a free (or living) person are limited.

Highly recommended.
Reviewer Score: 9