Edited June 2016
In the annals of action cinema, only a few directors regularly serve up meaningful main courses. Few really claim even one all-time classic, and if you increase the limit to two, you’re really counting on one hand. Thankfully, Hong Kong malevolence maestro John Woo has enough panache in his step and off-kilter edge in his frame to cover a full crash course on the genre. Perhaps the only action director whose demented fugue bathes his entire (pre-2000) canon in a gusto that marks his films as individual slices of a larger action opera, this only speaks with more fluency to Woo’s oddly existential, personalized take on a genre typically reserved for more corporate penthouses. He’s a full-on longitudinal case study in hyperbolizing and electro-shocking violence and elevating it to an oblong poetry of human flesh and human desire trapped in perpetual motion, always searching for the next potential soul to take, or, for his ennui-addled protagonists, the next soul to find.
Woo began as an underdog adventurer in the international scene striving to tell stories in urgent, improvisational ways, lacking enough of a budget to secure stability and thus free to experiment and find his own niche. When he journeyed to America (following the release of his Hong Kong masterpiece Hard Boiled), success induced a too-content milquetoast American shill with enough money to laze around beyond a camera with idle contentedness, no longer experimenting or probing as he unfurled a deluge of movies without the passion and thirst of someone who really needed to prove himself to eat at night. Whatever happened in his latter-day career, for a period, he was one of the best working films in any country, and to this day his single slipperiest rattlesnake strike is probably The Killer, a likely contender for greatest action film of its decade (The Terminator and Die Hard strike me as the only competition). Plus, it’s the only one with the youthful indiscretion, or the ultra-confident moxie, to mix equal parts high-melodrama and high-body-count into a sort of dastardly swill of defiant maximalist cinema not afraid to turn up the emotion knobs to 11 on basically all fronts.
We open on Ah Jong (Chow Yun-fat), an assassin who works in Hong Kong on his … one last job … for the underground Triad criminal organization, when he accidentally blinds a nightclub singer named Jennie (Sally Yeh). Soon enough he develops a certain affection for her, perhaps seeing her as the last consequence of his life of crime and using her to redefine himself as a benevolent figure (I’m not sure where the film stands on issues of benevolent sexism, and I’m not sure it knows either; if it does end up indicting Jong and never buys his excuse for redemption it also partially tries to legitimize his actions by seeing his arc as that of grand tragedy, plus it’s a masculine story in general). They fall in love over time, with Jong seemingly having left his old life behind. But such things have a way of catching up with a person, and they do, in the form of Detective Li Yang (Danny Lee) who has it out for Jong and who himself comes to develop a certain dissonant respect for him.
Now, just because Woo’s action direction is biting and brutal doesn’t mean the film is as stripped-down. In fact, his drama is actually rather synonymous with the exaggerated poetry and fable-like tone of many East Asian productions from the late ’80s and ’90s, most notably the works of his fellow Hong-Kong director Wong Kar-wai. The entire film exists in a heightened inebriation, always on edge and primed for a dip into explosive, nervy action, yet it always carves out a little nook for hot-headed reflection. Beneath its classical theatrical drama about a man looking to live a normal life and discovering that he lost his soul long ago lies a certain melancholy tremor, a pulse of anxiety that never goes away. The sense is of characters battling for life, but knowing that their life on the edge doomed them long ago, and the hyper-saturated soap-noir tone of the piece only revels in this sort of hyper-obvious emotion as a genuine aesthetic. There’s nothing timid about this macho-weepie; the allegorical symbolism, the loopy waterworks, the macho-eroticism; all are heightened to a state of quasi-sublimity. Goofy it may be, but the confidence with which the film approaches its silliness gives it the courage of its convictions; it dives headfirst into the ass end of drama with so much zest that you sort of can’t but imbibe.
It almost, almost, borders on Kar-wai’s specific variant of impressionist storytelling filtered through Woo’s more pyrotechnic-heavy lens. Woo’s action direction is logistically counter-intuitive but ecstatically perfect (as Werner Herzog might say), hammering from shot to varied shot so that each cut primes us further to the edge and hits his characters at an emotion-first level. Shots stab between Jong and Ying in continuous action, exposing time as Woo’s greatest tool and weaving against the fabric of continual motion itself; there’s some extremely adept cross-cutting going on here, kinetic on the surface and emotionally rigorous and sensible down below. Nothing is a more intuitive visual choice for his stated themes of men on the edge of their lives, dueling with each other as a way of confronting their own unstated other halves. The film literally positions the two as split halves of the same person at several points, performing the same actions and implying that their fight against each other is a simultaneous fight for each of them against their selves. Again, it’s all carnivorously overweening – swooning camera work, deliberately soft lighting, the characters more like diffuse ghosts than people – but there’s something about Woo’s palpable joie de vivre in every shot that latches on and drags you into his black hole.
Woo’s direction is the rare style that manages both jagged hits and graceful fluidity, every image the natural progression of the previous one and the camera almost swinging from shot to shot. At some level, it eschews the basic laws of physical geometry, using architecture to deconstruct location-work and unload gun battles that take place in a limbo of human heat and bitter confrontation. Woo subtly resists and inverts traditional continuity editing to elude a sense of physical continuation and real-world location, instead dropping us into the minds of these characters as they interpret the landscape they live in, rather than giving us the actual world around them.
Outside of all this, The Killer is just a really sharp action picture, harsh and difficult yet romantic and elegiac, matching Shakespeare with a psychokinetic urge and heightening it to a fever pitch. It is, for all its tragedy and passion, a highly exciting film, a work where gunplay serves as character set-pieces where men unleash their inner selves upon the world. Still, for all Woo wallows in the violence, he never excuses it. These men are undone because violence is the only means they have to express themselves, and in wanting to escape their violence, they are forced to use the only means they have available: more violence. It’s a consequential film, above all, deeply unsanitized and bruised and broken in its self-propagating, self-fulfilling prophecy of men relying on a lexicon of self-immolation to outdo one another until there’s nothing left to out or do in the first place.
Still, like even the most nuanced action films, it’s not a grand subversive statement; it doesn’t so much sympathize with any characters as sigh for their collective losses, and it ultimately puts all of the characters on the same plain without actively pushing for an understanding of how Jong’s masculine privilege begets his successful life and the way he tries to use Jennie as an object to justify his own benevolence. It is a film about people caught in the nexus between peace and war, unsure of how to have both, and ultimately unable to as well. Woo’s film itself occupies this nexus, and if it isn’t per-se excusable, it is artful and crafty, finding literate balladry in humanity at its worst.