A “popcorn movie” is, by definition, a fun action flick. Nothing deep or monumental. Just an entertaining waste of time.
There are popcorn movies, and then there is The Killer, director John Woo’s tale of the unlikely friendship between a Hong Kong assassin and the cop pursuing him. “It’s escape-velocity popcorn,” wrote Washington Post critic Hal Hinson. “Popcorn with a slurp of rocket fuel.”
Woo may be the world’s top action film director. Born in China, he learned his craft in Hong Kong, starting with martial arts flicks and making Jackie Chan a star. He has since moved to Hollywood, directing thrillers like Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II.
To some fans, The Killer represents the apex of his career—before he went too commercial. It’s got a solid storyline and strong acting. But it’s mostly a lavishly staged ballet of bullets and blood. Guns blaze in slow motion. Bodies fly through the air. This is high-octane violence in a way that makes your typical Sly Stallone or Steven Seagal fare look like Mary Poppins.
The story centers on Ah Jong (Yun-Fat Chow), a hit man for Hong Kong’s underworld, known as The Triad. While gunning down eight enemies at a nightclub, Jong accidentally grazes and blinds the club’s singer, Jennie (played by Sally Yeh, known as “The Celine Dion of Hong Kong”).
For this, he feels great remorse. Jong befriends the pretty singer and she, of course, does not recognize him as the man who shot her. He considers quitting the mob (doesn’t every movie hit man seem to go through that crisis?) but decides to take one last lucrative job so that he can take Jennie to the United States for a corneal transplant.
To remind you again: You are not watching The Killer for any semblance of reality.
In the course of that final assignment (beautifully shot during a dragon boat festival), two bad things happen. First, Jong is spotted by police inspector Li Ying (Danny Lee). And second, he is double-crossed by his own boss—who has set up a deathtrap that Jong barely escapes.
So Jong is on the run. When he goes back to Jennie’s apartment to hide, the clever police inspector isn’t far behind. There’s a great scene where the two men aim guns at each other’s face while the sightless woman, oblivious to their standoff and their enmity, tries to serve them tea. Two guys pointing guns at one another became a trademark shot for Woo and makes its way into most of his films.
Anyway, when two enemies are staring down each other’s gun barrels, the talk tends to get honest. So cop and killer undergo a rapprochement, realizing that they are both jaded men of honor surrounded by corruption. Each recognizes a bit of himself in his foe. They even make up bogus nicknames for each other—Shrimp Head and Little B—all to convince the pathetic Jennie that they are actually old soccer buddies.
The rest of the movie puts the unlikely trio in precarious situations where Jong and Li tumble around firing Berettas with both hands while Jennie cowers in the corner. The plot becomes secondary to a good half-dozen ambushes, escapes and slaughter scenes. We are pulled back to the focal point when Jong, up against the odds, says to his policeman pal, “Promise me one thing. If I don’t make it and my eyes are undamaged, take me to a hospital and have them give my corneas to Jennie. If that’s impossible, send her abroad for surgery with my money.”
Now that’s one honorable mobster.
Together, the new friends face a final confrontation with the gangsters aiming to slaughter them. It occurs in a candlelit church, surrounded by fluttering doves and Virgin Mary statues that explode when hit with gunfire. Again, if you’re a fan of Woo’s work, you’ll recognize many of the visual tricks in his later films.
After Woo went Hollywood in the 1990s, there was talk of an English-language version of The Killer starring Richard Gere and Denzel Washington. That didn’t happen, but in September 2010, Woo announced plans to remake the film, set in Los Angeles.
HIT: If you’re a fan of guns, this is the movie for you. According to the website Internet Movie Firearms Database (imfdb.com), no fewer than 25 different weapons make an appearance in The Killer.
MISS: There are four differently edited versions of The Killer floating around, running from 96 minutes to 124 minutes. In several of those subtitled versions, huge portions of dialogue get mistranslated, including characters’ names and the entire point of the movie’s ending. We recommend the 104-minute version released by a company called Hong Kong Legends.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Yun-Fat Chow plays something like a benign Terminator—a wistful, avuncular, superbly tailored murder machine. The Killer starts with over-the-top violence and then, like some non-stop cartoon freak out, blasts through the roof.”—J. Hoberman, Premiere
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: All of those guns had to be imported and were strictly monitored because of Hong Kong’s tough firearms laws. During one shootout scene, local residents, fearing that a real attack was underway, deluged police with emergency calls. The set was shut down until Woo assuaged the area police chief.
PIVOTAL SCENE: It’s that sequence where the two main characters nearly kill each other while their blind hostess tries to serve them tea. Afraid to alarm the young woman, the men pretend to be long-lost buddies, even as their trigger fingers twitch.
If that seems cartoonish, perhaps that’s because Woo was inspired by Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” feature while constructing it. He even dressed one in white and the other in black—a nod, he said, to the yin and yang of cops and gangsters.
GOOF: During an emergency room scene, the road sign outside reads “Scared Heart Hospital.” We would never want to be treated there.
REALITY CHECK: Dozens and dozens of shooters aim at our two lead characters—from sniper’s posts, from hunters’ blinds, from point-blank range. And yet both men go through most of the movie suffering nothing more than a grazing wound. There sure are some lousy marksmen in Hong Kong.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: That’s a matter of taste. If you delight in shoot-’em-ups, revisit it. If not, move on.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: Every time someone drinks a beer in this movie, he reaches for a Budweiser. Being fans of Asian beers ourselves, we’d have thought they’d prefer a Tsingtao or Asahi.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: High, but mostly in a comicbook way. There are two moments that will make you cringe—one where a bullet is removed from someone’s back with pliers, and another where a wound is cauterized by pouring gunpowder into it and burning it with a lit cigarette.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Hard Boiled, Woo’s 1992 effort (also starring Yun-Fat Chow) about a detective and an undercover agent who team up to take down a mob crew.
BODY COUNT: We tallied 118. You might get more.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”