Killer, The (1989) Review

"The Killer" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"The Killer" Japanese Theatrical Poster

AKA: Bloodshed Brothers
Director: John Woo
Writer: John Woo
Producer: Tsui Hark
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee Sau-Yin, Paul Chu Kong, Kenneth Tsang Kong, Sally Yeh, Shing Fui-On, Tommy Wong Kwong-Leung, Parkman Wong Pak-Man, Yip Wing-Cho

By Numskull

At what point does a person who has made a career our of some creative endeavor…whether it’s filming films, painting paintings or making little sculptures out of office supplies…come to the conclusion that they have well and truly honed their craft to perfection? That they can’t possibly top their latest masterpiece? That it’s all downhill from here?

Is it when the critical acclaim for their work reaches an all-time high? Is it when they become depressed and disillusioned with their current output, look back upon the good old days and realize that their best period is behind them? Or is it just when they finish their newest labor of love, sit back and review it in its entirety, and come to the simple conclusion that IT’S SO FUCKING GOOD that nothing they accomplish in the future will ever quite measure up?

Whether or not John Woo considers this to be his best movie is irrelevant. If he does indeed hold that opinion, how he arrived at it is also irrelevant. What is relevant is that this movie, more so than any other, transcends the restrictive and pedestrian label of “action movie” and shines above the rest…like a diamond in the rough, like a lone star in the midnight sky, like a patch of porcelain visible on the inside of a toilet bowl filled to capacity with lackluster cinematic shit. It is not just a John Woo movie…it is THE John Woo movie.

Ask anybody. Ask anybody worth the chemicals that compose their bodily fluids what The Ultimate John Woo Movie is, and they’ll tell you it’s The Killer. Maybe this one made more money or that one was more “ground-breaking”, but The Killer is the one that takes all the elements that make John Woo movies John Woo movies and wraps them up in one superior package.

Let’s ask some HK movie fans what THEY think.

Excuse me, sir. What is The Ultimate John Woo Movie?

“Why, that would be The Killer, of course.”

Of course. How about you, ma’am? What would you say is The Ultimate John Woo Movie?

“Gee, I like all of them, but I would have to say The Killer is The Ultimate. It’s got everything you could want.”

Very good. And what do you say, sir? The Ultimate John Woo Movie?

“Duh. The Killer. Everyone knows that. Anyone who doesn’t like The Killer should be disemboweled and strangled with their own intestines.”

To be sure. And what about you, young man? Yes, you with the nose ring and the tribal tattoo and the Eminem T-shirt. Do you think The Killer is The Ultimate John Woo Movie?

“No way. The Ultimate John Woo Movie is Hard Target. The R-rated one with everything cut out. And, by the way, my I.Q. is 37, my favorite TV show is Jackass and I voted for Bush because Marilyn Manson told me to.”

Oh…I see. Well, ah, everyone’s got opinions, right?

(Yes…but some are worth more than others.)

The Killer has it all, folks. Beautifully visceral shootouts, excellent performances by talented actors, honor, bloodshed, betrayal, heroism, more bloodshed, and a preposterous plot unravlled deftly and coherently.

What, I ask you, is there not to like?

The excessive violence? Bah! Try watching the nightly news.

The hard-to-swallow poeticism of the “honor among thieves” theme? Fah! It’s not John Woo’s fault that notions like honor and dignity are little more than myths in our beer-swilling, asshole music star-worshipping, inferior presidential candidate-nominating society.

The lack of a nicely-wrapped fairy tale ending? Pah! After years and years of Hollywood’s mass-produced “Good Guy Meets Girl, Good Guy Kills Bad Guys, Good Guy Gets Girl” drek (with “Bad Guys” and “foreigners” being interchangeable with nauseating frequency), I for one got a big kick out of it.

The “message” that violence is the way to resolve conflicts? Phooey! If you’re the type of person who finds “messages” in movies, then you’re probably also the type of person who stands on street corners holding a sign with the name of your favorite politician on it and drives an SUV just to look important while shuttling your offspring to and from soccer practice, so kindly eat shit and die.

Also, it’s refreshing to know that the most easily-accessible version of the movie is the one that you’re “supposed to” see. The good folks at Fox Lorber have released The Killer on VHS and DVD, letterboxed with remastered subtitles, and they didn’t cut out anything that John Woo himself did not remove (it was originally 135 minutes, but it was trimmed down to 110 by the man HIMSELF, not some fuckwit studio executive).

Now, with all of that having been said, you might be puzzled by the fact that I gave this film a rating of 9/10 instead of a perfect score. The way I see it, the rating should reflect the amount of enjoyment you got from the movie and not necessarily how “good” it is. Although this is the best movie there is to introduce some culturally illiterate swine to Mr. Woo’s work, I personally got bigger kicks from Hard Boiled and Face/Off.

Anybody ever count the number of bullets spent in this movie?

Anybody got way too much time on their hands?

Numskull’s Rating: 9/10

By Mister Floyd

The Killer was the first John Woo movie I ever saw and that was back in ’95 and this was only because a friend of mine was raving about it at the time. It was completely different to any action movie I had seen before. 4 years ago I rediscovered this gem in a store and bought it – part of the Hong Kong Legends franchise. I have watched it numerous times since then being a big fan of Asian cinema generally. Even today, this movie really stands out from others of the genre.

To begin with, the lead role is played by the very personable and charismatic Chow Yun Fat. He is perfect for the role and exudes class and style throughout the movie. However, I think what makes this movie stand out truly is the combination of mood and music, slow motion scenes and the uniquely Asian feel to it. John Woo makes a point of giving a human dimension to the bloodshed; human relationships and drama are just as important as the gun play and both should look good. Noble human characteristics shine through in early Woo movies.

My favourite moment in the movie is a scene were Chow Yun Fat – Jeffrey in the movie, is sitting in his apartment waiting for his boss to deliver his money after a successful hit. It is in fact a very stylish slow motion scene with a very cool looking Chow Yun Fat seated in quiet contemplation. The scene is shot from outside the room pearing in through a series of glass windows. There are other moments that take advantage of the suave and stylish hitman.

Then of course there is the apartment shootout which is very memorable and stylish. I would not say it is the best action film I have ever seen – in fact I think A better Tommorow is John Woo’s best – but The Killer is a dramatic and very stylish movie, extremely violent at times while soft and almost like an Asian pop video in some parts. Some parts of the movie could be perceived as cheesy, but in fact as a westerner conditioned by the Hollywood approach to action, I find it refreshing even now and it adds to the charm of this film.

As an added note, it is easy to spot the star quality of Chow Yun Fat for such a role when you see him in the ‘Shanghai Bund’ – a hugely popular t.v. series that began running in 1980 – I suspect that the scalf worn during the bar shootout was a tribute to this earlier t.v. role.

Mister Floyd’s Rating: 8/10

By Joseph Kuby

Excellent Existential Mobster Movie!

This is a majestic masterpiece that is one of the best films of all time; a groundbreaking classic that’s at once commercially accessible yet artistically acceptable and commercially exportable yet artistically exceptional. Not only that, but it’s one of the most influential and referential films of all time!

My perception of films changed after when I saw The Killer back in 1999, not strictly due to the mixing of genres or highly innovative, imaginative and intense action; but due to the level of subtlety and quality in its storytelling and direction. It was probably the first time I ever saw a film that didn’t have a happy ending, from that point onwards I was never sure if the hero would live or die much less win or lose.

It’s a film about loyalty, honour, honesty, chivalry, gallantry, ethics, morality, heroism, sacrifice, friendship, romance, betrayal, redemption and martyrdom.

I can really relate to this film in its depiction of a person struggling to live in an immoral society with only few people you can truly relate to. One of the points John Woo makes in this film and others is that people have a really warped sense of what’s right and wrong. People always use not having a religion as an excuse to act in the way they do (paradoxically people also use religion to do things such as wars). People use the excuse “everyone has their own personal morals according to their lifestyle” to justify some pretty shoddy and shitty things that they do.

In The Killer, Woo makes a point that regardless of backgrounds, gender, race, age and religion, everyone has a certain list of morals that they should abide by, even if it means making selfless choices that benefits everyone and everything as a whole – including yourself.

The Killer has some small & subtle doses of humour, gallops of romance, buckets of bullets and hard-hitting drama. It has a rousing and riveting soundtrack that’s both mesmerizing & memorable. It manages to combine the realistic with the stylistic in a world that’s both real and surreal simultaneously.

It’s a well-rounded film that combines visual and visceral aspects of Hollywood, European & Hong Kong film-making; which is why it seems so familiar yet so fresh (partly because John Woo puts things into the film which makes it truly his own). Even Martin Scorsese had seen this film and called it a favourite, coincidentally John dedicated the film to Martin. Scorsese particularly liked the usage of the Messiah music cue during the finale.

The first time I saw this, the ending (i.e. the death scene of a pivotal character and the positionnement de caractère* of it) reminded me of a similar scene in Sammo Hung’s Pedicab Driver (released in the same year) – I wonder who took from who or if this was an idea shared by the two marvellous directors.

Also it should be noted that whilst the finale of Taxi Driver formed the inspiration of the apartment shootout in this film; the finale of the directorial feature Rolling Thunder (made by the scriptwriter for Taxi Driver) had served as a platform of inspiration for the apartment shootout in A Better Tomorrow 2 (also made by John Woo).

As a sidenote for this film, music cues were taken from Chuck Norris’ Hero & The Terror.

* Similar to the French term mise-en-scene. Positionnement de caractères, as you may be able to interpret, means positioning of characters.

Joseph Kuby’s Rating: 10/10

By Lady Tequila

Quite simply the greatest movie ever made. Filmed in lyrical shades of blue and shot through with slow-motion, this is a film full of heroes, honour, humanity and gunplay beautiful enough to be ballet. It’s far more than an action movie: it’s a haunting, unforgettable tale of honour, friendship and betrayal, and John Woo’s values shine right through the haze of blood and bullets. And it’s visually stunning.

Chow Yun-Fat plays Jeff, an assassin with a conscience who accidentally blinds a singer (Sally Yeh) while on a job. He takes care of her and eventually falls in love with her, and finds he can’t go straight as he had planend to because he needs to make money to pay for an eye operation for her. Things become even more complicated when he develops a strong bond with one of the cops on his tail, Inspector Li (played by Danny Lee).

The cast is fantastic. John Woo has a real knack for bringing out the best in his actors, and here we get the performance of a lifetime from Danny Lee, and probably also from Sally Yeh – although she doesn’t have much to do, to be honest. Chow Yun-Fat mesmerises, as per usual, and here he exudes a magnetic sense of fate and destiny which really carries his character. It’s interesting to see Shing Fui-On playing a good guy for once, after having played probably every bad guy in the history of Hong Kong cinema.

The characters of Jeff and Inspector Li are fascinating. Jeff is a killer who just happens to empathise with a cop; Inspector Li is a cop who just happens to empathise with a killer. Together, they fight on the wrong side of the law, for the right reasons. Woo uses their relationship to pose questions about humanity and morality – what is right? What is wrong? And who makes the rules anyway? Interesting stuff, especially given Woo’s strongly religious background. And much has been made of the ‘homosexual undertones’ between Jeff and Inspector Li – personally I think these suspicions just show how sensitive the Western world is, i.e. not very.

What is amazing about this film is the way it says so much while hardly saying anything at all. Woo really knows how to set a scene which ‘talks’ visually, which means that not only is dialogue not so important, but the dialogue which IS used becomes far more powerful (and how’s “do you believe in God?” for an opening line?). A moment of slow-motion, a beat of silence, a pulse of music – and we learn so many things. Everything has meaning. Nothing is trivial. And Chow Yun-Fat really plays up to this, and does similar things with his face and body-language – a twitch of an eyebrow, a head-turn, and the story is advanced a million light years. The same goes for the ‘bonding scenes’ between Jeff and Inspector Li; much is made of a silence, or a look. In their world, a moment can mean so much; in some ways the whole film is based around a single moment when a singer is blinded in a night-club, and the lives of so many are changed irrevovably.

And then there is the action, which shouldn’t be forgotten because it’s bloody brilliant. No one does it like Woo. Big fucking handguns; artfully used slow-motion; thundering silence in the stillness before a storm of gunfire; heroes who never run out of ammunition; stunning, balletically choreographed scenes; a totally glorious body-count, and the visual impact of black bullets and red blood on white walls. And the action is so great because we care. It’s not just mindless action. It has impact because it has an emotional, human level. For instance, we care when the singer is blinded, and when a little girl gets injured (a moment Woo uses to full effect when Jeff rescues the girl, which adds impact to his character), and these moments of ‘caring’ underscore the violence perfectly.

Woo uses religious imagary to full effect in this movie. Some of the most powerful scenes occur inside a church. Probably the most haunting image of all is Jeff at the foot of a cross, right after he blinded the singer. Other unforgettable moments include white doves flying up when a death-knell gunshot sounds, the church being wrecked, and a real spine-tingler when a statue of the Virgin Mary is shattered in stunning and grotesque slow-motion, and we know the end is nigh. Woo also proves himself to be the king of the flashback, using flashbacks to add punch to emotional moments, rather than to remind the watcher of something.

But great movie or no, this one is flawed. There is no real place for women, Sally Yeh is underused, there are a few minor plot holes (like why the heck do so many people on John Woo Land conveniently leave their cars unlocked and their keys in the ignition?) and anyone who has seen Jean Paul Melville’s Le Samurai will know that the plot is not completely original, and that the character of Jeff is more than a little ‘inspired’ by Alan Delon.

But hey. Aren’t all great movies flawed?

Lady Tequila’s Rating: 10/10

By Joe909

The Killer is still the best modern Hong Kong movie I’ve seen. The action is fierce and paced perfectly, the acting is top-notch, the directing is textbook perfection, and, just as importantly, the melodrama isn’t piled on very thick. I hadn’t seen this movie in several years, and, having just watched it again, I’m knocked out by how powerful and excellent it really is. All hyperbole and crafty metaphors aside, the Killer is a great movie. Even the soundtrack is great ? though I must admit that the melody which plays throughout kind of reminds me of the music they played in those old Juan Valdez coffee bean commercials.

The characters in this film are so mythic and larger than life that they don’t seem to live in our world, and the cast does a wonderful job of bringing them to life. Chow Yun Fat shines as Jeff, as does Danny Li as the Inspector. And looking cool as hell is the replacement killer who’s called in to rub out Jeff ? I don’t know the actor’s name, but apparently in the extended Taiwanese print of this movie the character is named “Frank.” This guy isn’t as developed as Mad Dog in Hard-Boiled, but what little we see of him (especially in the deleted scene featured on the Criterion disc, of him tracking Jeff and Li) only serves to increase his almost-inhuman menace. And to top it off, he’s the guy who blows apart the statue of Mary. I would say that one of my regrets in this movie is that we didn’t get to see Jeff and this guy go head to head.

Unlike Hard-Boiled, which is so long due to its extended bouts of gunplay, the Killer is a better-paced film with action setpieces that are just as elaborate as any others Woo has directed. The shoot-out in the church is amazing, of course, but so is the gunfight in Jeff’s apartment. And one thing that heightens the action scenes in the Killer over those in Hard-Boiled is that there’s an emotional undercurrent throughout each of the fights in the Killer: they aren’t just over-the-top shootouts.

On an odd note, the US commercial for this movie says that the Killer is a “thriller comedy.” Not sure who they were trying to fool with that one. Maybe this is where the rumor came from, that proposes that the Killer was intended as a send-up of crime films?

Hands-down my favorite Woo film, and my favorite Hong Kong movie.

Joe909’s Rating: 10/10 (all it needs is a digitized “Street Fighter” voice chirping “Perfect!”)

By Tequila

Spoiler review, but I’m sure you have seen it already. Ooh, controversy!

Yes, it’s true – The Killer is a classic movie that I almost dislike. I love the action, the acting, the direction and everything else – this film is brilliant and there is no doubt about that.

I’m not going to bore you with repetition of what everybody else already said and no, Numskull, I don’t watch Jackass, but this is what I don’t like about The Killer:

The colour scheme: I just hate that whole brown and white colour scheme! It makes the visual aspect of the film look boring and if you aren’t concentrating on the dialogue you will want to nod off to sleep because it just seems so dull.

The finale: Jeff gets his ass kicked completely! He doesn’t even get to kill the main henchman, let alone the big boss, and then just goes and dies. Sorry, but I was looking forward to seeing him do a bit more, as after the finale he looks like any old gunman with a bit of skill; not at all like Mark Lee in A Better Tomorrow who was basically a superman with a gun (I’m not going to count Tequila Yuen from Hardboiled cause he lived). He may have looked good in all the other shootouts but he was fighting against mooks, not people who take more than one bullet in the ribs to kill like Weng or Yau.

The way Danny Lee blames Jeff for his partner’s death: It was hardly his fault! The guy went in himself, Jeff had nothing to do with it and it just seemed kinda contrived to me.

Tequila’s Rating: My personal enjoyment: 6/10 Overall quality of the film: 9/10

By Alvin George

“The Killer” is a considerably better movie than “Hard-Boiled.” It has John Woo’s trademark shootouts and doves, but the shootouts are shorter and don’t overwhelm the storyline and the characterizations. I could identify with the story (Chow Yun-Fat wants to stop being a hit man, but must do one last hit to raise money to get corneas for Sally Yeh, whom he accidentally blinds during a shootout). And there are even car chases, so the action scenes don’t just consist of shootouts. One powerful scene has a statue of the Virgin Mary shattering into a million pieces due to the gunfire. As a Roman Catholic, that scene really shook me up. It especially helped that I know how the cool Chow Yun-Fat looks like now. Not all Asians look alike, folks. Recommended.

Alvin George’s Rating: 9.5/10

By Jonathan Yates

This film is the film that really got me into John Woo. It is good from beginning to end. The gunfights, direction, music and the acting are the greatest you will ever see, I promise you! The four leads (Chow Yun Fat, Sally Yeh, Danny Lee, Chu Kong) are all really great and I cannot think of one unbelievable perfomance in the film. Oh yeah, be prepared, because unless you are a real hardass, you will cry at the end. If you know someone who dosent think that Chow Yun Fat is the coolest man on the face of this earth, show them this film. Is there a cooler man on the face of this earth? See this film and I think that you will agree with me that there is not.

Jonathan Yates’ Rating: 10/10

By Perkele

The first time I saw this film I thought it was the best action movie ever. Now, when I’ve seen the flick numerous times I think it’s an over-hyped, over-dramatic though fun movie about a killer and a cop who team up to battle it out with the bad people. Now that I’m already pissed everybody off, I might as well tell you another thing than bugs me about this movie: the main characters. While beautifully portrayed by Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee it seems that they don’t have a life outside of this story at all! No past, no nothing! But no matter what, “The Killer” is a good movie. I’m not going to tell you why, because you can’t actually live your life as a movie aficionado without bumping into these guys who don’t have anything bad to say about “The Killer”. Check out “A Better Tomorrow” and “A Bullet in the Head” instead, I say.

Perkele’s Rating: 8.5/10

By Vic Nguyen

Perhaps the most acclaimed Cantonese language production in the west, The Killer is generally considered by critics to be John Woo’s greatest achievement. Chow Yun-fat delivers, yet again, another memorable performance as the moral induced killer, while Danny Lee shines as the cop who unexpectedly develops a bond with the man he’s hunting down. John Woo is at the top of his game, balancing out blistering hyperviolent action sequences (by Ching Siu-tung) along with strong melodrama and numerous instances which displays his patented themes (Christianity, morality etc). A perfect introduction to the world of Hong Kong Cinema.

Vic Nguyen’s Rating: 10/10


Definately John Woo’s most acclaimed effort. In short, Chow Yun Fat’s performance is brilliant as a hitman who accidentally blinds a bystander during his “retirement job.” The cop on his trail (Danny Lee), eventually becomes his teammate, and when they are placed in the same scene, action is bound to follow. Emotionally stirring, yet stunningly violent, The Killer delivers many explosions and shoot-outs, punctuated with scenes of intense drama. An instant classic and high-class action film, The Killer is the standard by which HK actioners should be judged.

S!DM’s Rating: 10/10

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One Response to Killer, The (1989) Review

  1. JJ Hatfield says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review and your rating is spot on!
    God I love this movie!!!

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