"One of the ten best films of the year." -- Village Voice
"Dizzying thrills!" -- Rolling Stone
"Outrageous...supercharged...go-for-broke cinema." -- Los Angeles Times
Winner of the 1990 Hong Kong Film Award for Best Director
Manadrin title: Die Xue Shaing Xiong (A Pair of Blood Spattering Heroes)
AKA: Blast Killers
Golden Princess, 1989, 107 min.
Director: John Woo
Stars: Chow Yun-Fat ("Jeff"), Danny Lee ("Li"), Sally Yeh ("Jennie"), Chu Kong ("Sydney"), Shing Fui On ("Johnny Weng"), Kenneth Tsang ("Hawk")
Producer: Tsui Hark
Writer: John Woo
Cinematographers: Peter Pao and Wong Wing-Hang
Editor: Luk Man-Wah
Available on video (full frame and dubbed or subtitled or widescreen and subtitled) from Fox Lorber
Available on DVD from Fox Lorber and Dragon Dynasty -- reviews can be found here
"One cop. One hitman. Ten thousand bullets."
Chow Yun-Fat plays Jeff, a hitman who has a change of heart after he accidentally blinds a night club singer named Jennie. He agrees to pull off one last job so he can pay for a cornea transplant for her. However, after Jeff is spotted after the job by hot-headed Inspector Li, the Triad views "the killer" as a threat and tries to kill him. Escaping his would-be assassins, Jeff (with the aid of his only friend, Sydney) tries to get the money the Triad owes him, with Li in hot pursuit. Eventually, Jeff and Li must join forces to survive, resulting in an awesome gunfight (inside a church, no less) and one of the most "un-Hollywood" endings ever filmed.
While Jennie's songs (which repeat throughout the film) get annoying and the symbolism can be a bit overbearing, The Killer (the film that brought Woo and CYF international recognition) is nonetheless a masterpiece of filmmaking. From the first shot to the last, this is Woo at his best. When I first saw this movie, I absolutely freaked -- there's quite simply nothing like it. If you consider yourself an action fan (or just a movie fan) and you haven't seen this, do so now.
- Many of the themes and elements of The Killer were taken from or inspired by other movies, which include:
1) The beach shootout where Jeff saves the little girl is Woo's homage to Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo.
2) The "sunglasses gag" (where Jeff sees the reflection of his would-be killers in his sunglasses) was taken from Narazumo.
3) The shootout that happens after Sydney's double-cross was inspired by Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.
4) Jennie's "vision" of Jeff behind a sea of blood is taken from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.
5) Another Kubrick film, Barry Lyndon, provided the inspiration for using candles for dramatic lighting.
6) Jeff and Li are based on the protagonists from Chang Cheh's
7) The opening shootout in a bar and rescuing of a singer were taken from Le Samourai. Much of Chow Yun-Fat's performance of Jeff is derived from Le Samourai's Alain Delon.
8) The use of extreme close-ups and slow motion were inspired by Scorsese's Mean Streets.
9) Jeff and Li's "Mexican standoff" in Jennie's apartment was inspired by Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Woo notes on the Fox Lorber DVD commentary that Mad magazine's "Spy vs. Spy" also played a part in constructing this scene.
10) The Wild Bunch also provided the inspiration for Jeff and Li's "pep talk" to each other before they enter the last part of the church shootout.
11) Using a church as the "entrance to Hell" (as Woo puts it on the Fox Lorber DVD commentary) or the place of the final confrontation between good and evil was inspired by the finale of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
- Initially, Golden Harvest did not want to make The Killer, but Chow Yun-Fat (the studio's top star) insisted that it be made. Chow was also instrumental in bringing in Chu Kong. Chu had not performed in a movie since the 1970's and the studio was hesitant to use him, but he and Chow were good friends after having worked on some television shows together. Chow wanted Chu to play the part of Li, but Chu thought he was too old. Woo suggested that they bring in his friend Danny Lee, who at one time wanted to be a cop and had already made a name for himself playing both police officers and gangsters. Chow had previously worked with Lee on a small film in the early 1980's called The Executor (aka Killers Two) and Ringo Lam's gangster classic City on Fire, and agreed with Woo that he would be a perfect fit for the part of Li.
- Shing Fui On got his start in the Hong Kong film industry as a prop master. A director liked his face and used him as the villain in a movie and Shing has since become known as one of Hong Kong's best actors for portraying villains.
- The scene where Jeff beats up Jennie's would-be attackers in the alley was tough for Chow Yun-Fat, who doesn't like violence. Woo wanted hard hits, but Chow had trouble at first. After some coaching from Woo, Chow was able to muster up anger to make the scene more convincing. In fact, it became too convincing, as the stuntmen had to tell Chow to pull his punches a bit after one of them got hurt. Chow got hurt himself during the filming of the church shootout, when a piece of plaster cut his face, missing his eye by an inch. You can see the cut during the part where Jeff and Li talk before leaving the church.
- Woo never storyboarded or pre-planned any of the film's action sequences, instead improvising on the set with the actors, stuntmen and stunt director. Part of the reason he did this is that Hong Kong is a very competitive film market and Woo wanted to protect his ideas from being stolen by other directors, and also that he prefers to "work as an artist, like a painter. I want to show where my mood takes me" [from Fox Lorber DVD commentary]. In fact, during the entire production of the movie, there was never a "final" script. At any rate, this would irritate producer Tsui Hark, who wanted to know exactly where the film's budget was going. Even when Woo would plan out non-action scenes, he would often change things in the last minute. For instance, most of the dialogue during Sydney and Jeff's confrontation in the apartment (when Sydney double-crosses Jeff) was improvised. Chow Yun-Fat told Woo a story about a similar experience when he was betrayed by a friend and Woo told him to go with that for the scene and ignore the script. He notes on the Fox Lorber DVD that "...if I tried that in Hollywood, I would be fired."
- Since getting permits and arranging the sequence was proving to be tough, some of the footage during Tony Weng's assassination scene was shot under the pretense that Woo was doing a documentary about the annual Dragon Boat race, an important event in Hong Kong. Woo shot the bulk of the footage five months before (even before a cast and crew had been finalized) and brought in a small crew later to fill in the gaps. Putting together the scene was very hard for the editor, especially as Woo didn't use any storyboards. Eventually, he ended up editing the scene himself, which took three weeks. Woo, who is a huge fan of musicals, tried to think of the sequence as a musical numbers or dance sequences, going so far as to edit it in time to the soundtrack. As for exactly how he came up with the idea for the sequence and how he executed it, Woo says on the Fox Lorber DVD "I really have no theory, I just did it."
- All of the guns in the film are real. Since Hong Kong has very strict gun laws, they had to be specially imported and their use on-set was closely monitored by the local authorities. The gunfights in the streets of Hong Kong drew complaints from the residents, but since many police officers are fans of Woo's, they would let him continue filming -- usually. During the shootout on the tram with Li and the gun-runner, people thought there was a real robbery going on and it caused chaos in the Causeway Bay district. Woo eventually had to talk to the Police Superintendent himself before he was allowed to resume filming.
- The statue in the police station (shown before Li's interrogation by his superiors after the tram shootout) is of General Kwan, a soldier from over a thousand years ago whose bravery and loyalty has made him like a god to cops and gangsters alike. The same statue was re-used for the CID Headquarters set in Hard-Boiled.
- Sally Yeh was a popular Hong Kong pop star -- Jennie's ballads in the film are in her own voice. She was so popular at the time of the film's shooting that she could not totally fulfill her schedule due to conflicts with her concerts. This led to a radical change in the storyline which had both Jeff and Li in love with Jennie, with her blind at the beginning of the movie and telling the story through flashbacks and a different ending where Jennie is seen getting on a plane to America with Jeff's money to get her cornea transplant.
- The nicknames that Jeff and Li give each other differ from version to version (they call each other "Dumbo" and "Mickey Mouse" in the Fox Lorber version). For example, on the Criterion laserdisc, Jeff calls Li "shrimphead," which could be interpreted as a slam against Li's haircut or the size of his penis. In the Media Asia DVD version, they call each other "numbnuts" and "butthead." Jeff is called John (not by coincidence, since Woo identified with the character) in some versions.
- The Killer did well at the box office everywhere it was released, except for Woo's native Hong Kong, where they where still feeling the after-effects of the Tianemen Square massacre. Also, many people were put off by the violence. Chow Yun-Fat says in Hong Kong Action Cinema [© 1995 Overlook Press] "A lot of the audience can't stand [the violence]. I, myself, don't like violence. I don't like gunfire. John Woo does. He loves the sound of bullets. On the set, he never wears earplugs...[but] you cannot blame films for the breakdown of society. It's down to the parents and the education system to teach the new generation. Not the movies!" Woo was not disappointed about the dismal box office returns, though, saying in Asian Pop Cinema [(c) 1999 Chronicle Books]: "Only with The Killer did I get everything as I wanted: every character, the cinematography, the editing were all complete, all in one tone. It's very hard to keep control and to maintain the vision you have for a movie. Because nobody...really knows what the movie is going to look like before it is put together. Only after I finished the whole movie and...everybody watched it, then they find out: 'Oh, the movie is so romantic.' It really surprised everyone." As for the violence, he says on the Fox Lorber DVD commentary that "I never want to glorify violence. There always has to be a reason to show violence in my films. Usually, that is to show that we should stop violence. If we cannot, then we need a hero that can." Woo seems to put the blame on the local failure of The Killer with its' ending: "The younger people, they didn't like seeing Chow Yun-Fat getting killed. They liked the killer, they wanted the hero to live. They also didn't like seeing the police officer do wrong. The ending depressed them and they didn't want to see the movie again" [from DVD commentary]. Chow Yun-Fat sensed the ending would put off viewers and wanted to have Jeff and Jennie meet and hold hands before dying, but Woo wanted to go for a more tragic ending. "The killer, even though he has a change of heart, has to meet this kind of end. He has to give everything to gain love." [from DVD commetary].
- It took 92 days to film The Killer, at a cost of 14 million Hong Kong dollars (2 million US dollars). The shootout at the beach house took 28 days to film, during which over 20,000 rounds of ammunition were fired, and the final shootout at the church took 36 days and over 40,000 rounds to complete.
- The clothes that Li and Jeff wear figure into their characters. Notice how Li's clothes switch from light to dark and Jeff's clothes switch from dark to light. They both wear a combination of white and black (symbolizing their dual nature) during the final shootout.
- On its first US run, The Killer was actually promoted as a campy action/comedy, mostly due to mistranslation and bad subtitling. Only after it received proper translation did it get the serious recognition it deserves.
- The Killer was screened for the head of Universal Studios by Quentin Tarantino, who wanted to help Woo make his US debut. After seeing the film, the executive said "Well, [Woo] can certainly direct an action scene," to which Tarantino replied "Yeah, and Michelangelo can certainly paint a ceiling!"
- One of the most frequently asked questions about Woo's films is about his use of religious symbolism, especially the use of doves. Woo explains some of the religious symbolism in the June 2000 issue of "Premiere": "I love doves. I am a Christian. Doves represent the purity of love, beauty. They're spiritual. Also the dove is a messenger between people and God...when I shot The Killer, these two men, the killer and the cop, they work in different ways, but their souls are pure, because they do the right thing. In the church scene, I wanted to bring them together. I wanted to use a metaphor of the heart. I came up with doves -- they're white. When the men die, I cut to the dove flying -- it's the soul, rescued and safe. Also pure of heart. So the dove became one of my habits, I used it in Hard-Boiled, Face/Off and MI2." Jeff's "theme" (what he plays on the harmonica) is Handel's "Messiah." Having Jeff's hideout be a church was natural for Woo, who took refuge in a local church as a child. The opening scene parallels what Woo would often do in the church -- contemplate life, God and his place in the world. Finally, as for the shot of the statue of the virgin Mary being blown to pieces, Woo said this about it in Hong Kong Action Cinema: "To me, [Mary] symbolizes all that is good and pure. When the villains destroy the statue, it's like they are destroying the last goodness."
- There has been some dispute over to exactly what John Woo directed on the movie. Some people say that the film's action (stunt) director Ching Siu Tung, not John Woo, was responsible for the film's explosive action sequences. In Hong Kong, the action director (aka action co-ordinator) often takes total control over the action scenes. Darryl Pestilence offered this response through a post on alt-asian.movies: "Ching was brought in at the behest of Tsui Hark - who did everything within his power to see that The Killer never got made. Chow Yun-Fat got the film made, going over Tsui's head and straight to the money men at Golden Princess - Film Workshop's key financier and the film's distributor. Chow had a contract with Golden Princess and he was worth more to them than Woo or Hark combined. The Killer was a project that Film Workshop [Tsui Hark's company] owned, so Woo was bound to them. It was the last film he and Tsui made together. Their relationship was shot to sh*t by their fight over creative control on A Better Tomorrow II - a film in which Tsui and Ching Siu Tung do some of the choreography on. As a part of Tsui's requirements, Woo worked with Ching on The Killer, but the majority of the action was overseen by another action director. Ching's contributions were more than likely watered-down in the editing room, conforming them to Woo's standards. Look at Ching's gunplay in utter sh*t like Wonder Seven and later with Blacksheep Affair and I rest my case. Ching was washed up after the popularity of the wire-fu genre died out and his ability to direct a gun fight is questionable. Woo blocked the shots and oversaw the editing. They [Woo's action directors] gave him the mayhem and he decided what would be overcranked, undercranked, shot medium or wide, and how much coverage would go down - not the action directors, who, like a composer, oversaw what the actual stuntmen were doing. What ended up on the screen was 90% Woo, and like a good director, he knew what to keep in the film. The silly argument falls more into the reality that the action directors brought the pyrotechnics and pratfalls into the work, but how they were photographed was strictly Woo. Look at the 'directorial' efforts of his action directors: Phillip Kuo Choi, Ching Siu Tung, and Stephen Tung Wai - and I think we've proven they had little to do with the 'style' Woo has become synonymous with."
The following comments about The Killer by John Woo are from the Criterion Laserdisc/DVD (thanks to Ryan at the Hong Kong Movie DataBase for transcribing the commentary:
- "[I wanted] to show that even the most different people can have traits in common. Even though we are walking a different path, we must have something in common. I made it a cop and a killer so that they would be extremely different characters, with one thing in common. That's why I wanted to make it a triangle love story, at first."
- "The killer [Chow Yun-Fat] is a man who does bad things, but he wants to be good. That's why I put him in a church at the beginning. He is fed up with killing and he wants to stop. He goes there like I didn't in my childhood. I always liked to sit in the church, I liked the peace. I was thinking about God, thinking about fate, asking who is controlling my fate, God or myself?"
- "Whatever I do, I never think about the audience. The first thing I think of is the character, the actor and I, how we feel. To me the gangster films are just like Chinese swordplay pictures. To me Chow Yun-Fat holding a gun is just like Wang Yu [a famous "old-school" kung-fu actor best known for the One-Armed movies] holding a sword. All I intend to glorify is the hero. Not violence, not the Triad societies, just the behavior of the hero. When the audience reacted to the movie, I was surprised. They were so serious about it! It made me realize I have to be more concerned about how people will react. I think I care too much about romanticism. In the future, my films have got to look deeper into people. Bullet in the Head was an experiment to do that, which is why the film was made without a hero."
- "Chow Yun-Fat has a very special quality as an actor. His acting is so natural and so true, from his heart. Also I like his personality, his real character. He likes to help people. He's a real shining knight to me. Chow reminded me of Alain Delon and Takakura Ken, so he's my kind of hero. He has an image as a real Chinese man, a real Chinese hero. Usually when Chow and I work together, we put our real feelings into the characters. When you see Chow Yun-fat in one of my movies, you see me. I put myself into his characters."
- "After the big success of A Better Tomorrow, Part One and Part Two, I was confused, wondering who I am, what kind of movies I should make. I was established as an action director, but now I wanted to change people's impressions of me. I knew that my movies were not only action, that I put a lot of ideas into them, but people just didn't notice. Also I was fascinated by a Japanese movie in the 1960s, I forget the name. Takakura Ken was the star; it was shot in Hong Kong and Macau. Takakura was a killer who had principles, he only killed bad people. But he goes to Hong Kong to do a job, and discovers that he has been used by a gang to kill a good person. So the killer tries to find out who set him up and take revenge on the whole gang. And somehow he met a Japanese woman, a prostitute, who had TB and wanted to get back to Japan. He promises that after he takes revenge, he will take her home. So Takakura Ken goes to fight with the gang, and he gets killed. And then there was scene in the morning, the girl still waiting on the dock, and the hero never comes to take her home. So this movie I loved very much, and tried to get some of that spirit into The Killer."
- "The original opening was in a jazz bar, the killer and the singer are there, she's blind and they're in love already. The singer was performing a jazz song, and the killer was playing the saxophone. There were a lot of flashbacks to show how he wounded the girl and fell in love with her. But Tsui Hark objected. He said the Hong Kong audience doesn't know about jazz. So in the second draft of the script I had to change it to a Chinese song the kind that's always used in Hong Kong movies. But it is still a good song and a good lyric, about how we are all wandering and chasing after love and hope. And a few years later I used the jazz opening in Hard-Boiled!"
- "On The Killer I asked the sound-effects people to create a new gun sound for the main characters. We combined five or six different gunshots, pout them into one, to make a special sound for Chow Yun-fat and another for Danny Lee. We have an individual sound for each character."
The Criterion DVD version has several scenes missing from the videotape version (thanks to Thomas A. Jones for the info; you can also view a couple of these at Red on White: The John Woo Site):
- The first scene that was added in the DVD is almost 5 minutes long. Jeff was sitting in his room waiting for Sidney, and Li was waiting for Jenny after she was done singing. This whole scene parallels what Jeff did earlier for Jenny. Li helps protect Jenny from a group of street hooligans, and takes her up to her apartment.
- The second one was right after Jeff wasted all the hired muscle while he was talking to Sidney. He's seen leaving his apartment just as the cops arrive, just narrowly missing Li.
- In the third, Jenny and Jeff go to a seaside home, this is just after the scene at the airport. He carries her up the stairs and into the home.
- The fourth scene is just after Li's partner is fatally wounded following Sidney. Here Sidney walks in the house to find Jeff and Jenny eating breakfast. Sidney tells them he was followed, although he thinks he lost them. There could be trouble.
- The final scene is right after the scene in which Li and Jeff bond, by the stream. They leave, and soon after one of Weng's thugs drives by the stream and sees the blood and bandages left behind.
- In the audio commentary, Woo hinted at a different ending being originally considered. In the original ending, Jeff and Jenny are both killed, but we see them at the very end, sort of off in paradise together.
Back to Movie Review index