Rated R for excessive language and blood. It also probably reinforces some pretty gross gender stereotypes as well. But mostly, this is a movie about gun violence all throughout with heavy doses of red blood on white outfits. Also, John Woo thinks that desecrating sacred imagery is automatically artsy versus me, who says that it is low hanging fruit that is borderline offensive. R.
DIRECTOR: John Woo
I went off on this whole thing with Hard Boiled that stated that The Killer wasn't that good either. While I'm not going to be really loving on The Killer either, I might have to backpedal a bit. I was ready to hate-watch this movie and a lot of it is pretty hatewatchable. But I can also see that John Woo is trying, at least, to include artistry in his gun shooty-shooty movie. I mean, why else would I watch this, unless it was to brag that I finally got a non-bootleg copy of the Criterion for this one. (I know!)
Before I decide to deep dive, I do want to point out how much I would hate being Lee Ying from a metacontextual perspective. It's not exactly new that movies feature antiheroes. Heck, it's actually an entire subgenre that I tend to gravitate towards. It's the reason that I like Breaking Bad. But imagine that you are a cop who spent a lot of his time giving up his life. You've watched the death of good cops at he hands of monsters and no one in your department is supporting you. So you put in all these extra hours and put your life on the line only to find out that everyone relates to Ah Jong, the mercenary who seems like an overall nice guy? That's really about it. I mean, Lee falls for it as well. The movie waxes poetic about the nature of friendship time-and-again, but really it just comes down to the fact that the titular killer is a handsome and charismatic dude who doesn't let little kids die.
There's something there to explore, but I don't necessarily know if John Woo has sold the tale of the inverted expectations like something like Les Miserables has done. The movie really fights to make this unlikely friendship happen and I'm not really sure why it does. We get the idea that Ah Jong is not a monster, at least not on the level as other monsters are. He is compassionate when it comes to revenge because he doesn't outright murder his friend who tries having him killed. He feels bad about blinding this poor girl who was just a singer in a club. He carries a bloodied little girl to the hospital after she took a bullet intended for him. These, on the surface, are all noble acts. But the thing is, none of these moments really make him a good guy, so much as not-as-bad-as-other-characters. Refusing to kill Fung-Sei isn't necessarily a noble act. It is the absence of an evil act. Also, Fung-Sei's survival almost feels like it is in there to progress the plot. Fung-Sei is there to get John his money and that needs to happen to keep the characters in the story.
And I really do feel gross about the whole Jennie plot. John hangs out with Jennie out of guilt. She wasn't part of this whole world and then she loses her sight? It seems like this is a noble trait, but he gaslights her the entire movie. He lies about the fact that he's the guy who took her sight. He then continually lies to her about the danger she is in. It's like he has the gross version of the good-guy syndrome. Jennie is infantilized for the entire film by John, who really is only looking out for himself and his conscience. This all leads to Jennie almost murdering a cop? Like, he completely grooms her from hating him to loving him, so much so that she pulls the trigger on a cop. The only reason that she isn't completely an emotional wreck is that she missed him due to his blindness. But even in that moment, she feels this deep regret. It's bad enough that he blinded her, but he turns her into a killer (which is the title of the movie!). Yet, Woo keeps selling this relationship as romantic. We see that John jumps through hoops for this girl, but all of her problems have been caused by him. It's really gross.
I don't really get the friendship of John and Lee. A lot of what is coming out of this movie is John Woo's obsession with the West's attitude towards action movies. Taking liberal cues from Lethal Weapon, Woo tries playing up the mismatching of two very strong personalities. By giving them nicknames like Butthead and Numb-nuts, it really kind of feels forced. I kept wanting to believe that this rivalry would turn out to be an awesome team, but it never really makes sense from the police inspector's perspective. John doesn't really have to make the change from his comfort zone. He enters the film ready to leave the assassin business. So all of the character stuff comes from Lee's perspective. It's all very tell-not-show. I have all these questions about character motivations, but the movie keeps telling me to shut that up and just live with the notion that these two will be shooting bad guys side by side.
Do you know one part of the movie that really bugged me? At one point, John makes the vow to never kill again. After all, if he wants to be with Jennie, he needs to change his ways, right? Apparently, the no killing rule only applies to major characters in the story. In no way does John slow down on the oodles of bad guys who die in this movie. Like, it doesn't even slow them down. They all decided to wear white and show up to be cannon fodder spackled in blood. The movie really wants to be this redemption tale for the killer who has seen too much and wanted to get out, but it just keeps killing more and more dudes because John Woo almost seems like a child.
As much as I think that this was a better effort than Hard Boiled, John Woo seems really immature in this movie. This is what a high schooler thinks vulnerability looks like. So much of it is based on "cool." Maybe I'm just getting old. I feel old when I watch movies like The Killer. Honestly, I'm about to write about Snatch. It just feels like there isn't a chance at a real moment because everything feels so stylized. For example, the movie takes place in an abandoned church. Part of me is aware that this is a cliche because John Woo made it a cliche. But instead of letting me experiencing the turmoil that John actually experiences, there's a cool shootout in a church that's lit exclusively by candle. Heck, something even happens to the church between the first scene of the movie and the end gun-battle. It's just that it often feels like a student film. I can't say that this feeling is absolute. There are honest moments where I feel that there's something really quality in there. It's just that it often feels belabored by the fact that so much of it seems motivated by being cool as opposed to being honest.
I know I really tore into this one. I didn't hate it as much as I made it sound like. It's just that I know that if you took away the gun violence, which feels icky to me in some ways, there isn't much actual substance. Yes, the story is actually a story and a story worth watching. But so much of it is hidden behind action and '80s tropes. I don't regret owning this movie, but it is far from being one of the masterpieces that people claim that it is.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.