Wednesday, February 09, 2005

#8: The Killer

The Killer, 1989, written and directed by John Woo.

On his commentary track for The Killer, John Woo explains several times that he is a devout Christian who believes that man should live in peace and harmony. Peace and harmony seem to be something of a problem for his characters, inasmuch as they can't stop shooting at each other. Well, actually, they do stop shooting each other, when it's time to join forces and slaughter anonymous henchmen by the score. I didn't try to keep a body count in this movie but it's easily over one hundred (the IMDB has it at 120). And these aren't implied deaths, they're squib exploading, body-jerking, blood-splattering-on-the-wall carnage. I don't want to question Mr. Woo's faith or optimism, but you sure wouldn't infer it from watching The Killer.

Chow Yun-Fat stars in The Killer as an assassin who mistakenly blinds a nightclub singer while on a hit. He feels guilty about it and sort of adopts her (she can't see him, so she doesn't know he's the man who blinded her). Hilarity ensues. No, wait. Carnage ensues: Chow Yun-Fat takes one contract too many, and is double-crossed by his manager, who is a retired hitman himself. On the run from the police and his former employers, Chow Yun-Fat stays alive the only way he knows how: by shooting lots and lots and lots of anonymous henchmen.

Although the structure of the plot is predictable, the character relationships are neat and easily to diagram: there are three friendships that make up the movie: Chow Yun-Fat is friends with his manager and mentor, Sydney. Inspector Li, the cop trailing Chow Yun-Fat, is friends with his partner and mentor, Chang. Inspector Li and Chow Yun-Fat come to be friends as well; so it's a rectangle; Sidney and Chang don't know each other but the other characters connect. And they all want to protect Jennie, the nightclub singer Chow Yun-Fat blinds in the second scene of the movie.

Which brings me to the problem I have with the film. Woo learned a hell of a lot from Peckinpah about how to set up and shoot action sequences. The balletic violence in The Killer is nearly as good as The Wild Bunch. But although they film it in similar ways, I think Woo and Peckinpah have fundamentally different ideas about what violence is and how it works, and I think Peckinpah got it right. My understanding of The Wild Bunch comes mostly from a fantastic lecture about the movie that Jim Shepard, Shawn Rosenheim, and Stephen Tifft gave (I don't remember who was actially talking that day). Anyway, the great thing about The Wild Bunch is that in that movie, in that moral universe, you can't control violence. No matter how carefully planned and executed it is, once guns start firing, things get very messy, very fast. You can see this in the opening sequence, where the well-thought-out robbery turns into an absolute bloodbath, with plenty of innocent people getting slaughtered. (If you haven't seen the movie, it opens on an out and out shootout between a group of bandits and a group of bounty hunters. The gunfight takes place on a street where a temperance group is holding a parade. It doesn't go well for the temperance marchers. Or the bank employees. Or the bandits, or the bounty hunters, or the town's buildings, or the horses). Peckinpah's movie stands in contrast to earlier westerns, in which the heroes are always able to use violence very precisely; what defines a hero is that he never hurts the wrong people. But in a Peckinpah movie, you can't help but hurt the wrong people when things get violent. You can't help but hurt everybody.

In The Killer, you have the same out-and-out bloodbaths as in The Wild Bunch . According to the IMDB, 60.000 blank rounds were fired during the filming of the last two fights. But both Chow Yun-Fat's character and Inspector Li never hurt the wrong people. In fact, Chow Yun-Fat goes to great lengths to clean up after the bad guys, when they do hurt the wrong people: early on in the movie, he takes great personal risks to deliver an injured child safely to a hospital. He didn't shoot her; they were aiming for him. But she shouldn't have been hurt. Jennie is the only person Chow Yun-Fat hurts by accident. I just don't think the world works that way. And for a character with such a strong sense of outrage when the innocent are harmed, Chow Yun-Fat has a tendency to turn everywhere he goes into an abattoir.

Leaving aside the morality of John Woo's movie, there's a lot of terrific filmmaking here. Watch for a great scene where Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee, guns pointed at each other, pretend that they are old high school friends for the benefit of Jennie. The shootouts, when they happen, are very well choreographed. And although John Woo has singlehandedly turned some of his favorite images into clichés (slow motion shots of birds flying, gunmen in churches), they became clichés because they worked at one time, and they work here.

Trivia and other thoughts:

The video on this one is kind of lo-res and tinted at times with red. It looks to me a lot like Mean Streets or Taxi Driver, in terms of the grainy texture it has. I think that makes the violence seem all the more intense because it looks illicit, like you're watching a snuff movie or the satellite channel in Videodrome. It looks seedy.

Worst line of dialogue: the cop is trying to describe the killer to a police sketch artist. He says, "He looks determined, without being ruthless. There's something heroic about him." I don't think that helps the sketch artist much.

Best line of dialogue: "Nostalgia is one of our saving graces."

On the commentary track, John Woo says of his leading lady Sally Yeh: "Sometimes she overacts a little. She did try very hard." Ouch. She also cut her schedule short and forced Woo to change the ending of the movie cause he couldn't shoot her last scene. So perhaps he holds that against her.

Guns are not legal in Hong Kong. And John Woo has never fired one (or hadn't when he recorded the commentary track).

Woo's advice for filmmakers is to work as an editor first; that forces you to examine exactly how a scene was shot, and learn how to piece it into something that makes sense. Which makes it easier to decide how to shoot something yourself.

I really liked the idea of hitmen having managers to set up their deals. They probably do, these days.

The actor who played Johnny Weng, the worst bad guy, was a property manager in Hong Kong. He has the face for it; you would not pay this guy late. Martin Scorcese also cast a real life landlord in Goodfellas; Chuck Low, who played Morrie, the annoying wig salesman.

Woo hates writing his scenes before he shoots them, because he gets bored with watching actors do something he's already imagined. I don't quite know what to make of this, except to point out that he was working for a studio where the executives didn't watch the dailies. At all. Contractually. The first frame of film they saw was the first workprint. So I think Woo had a bit more freedom to screw around on set than anyone working for an American studio.

Finally, there should be an equivalent phrase to "Tyburn Jig" for death by machine gun. I suggest "Hong Kong Shuffle."


Jody said...

"And these aren't implied deaths, they're squib exploding, body-jerking, blood-splattering-on-the-wall carnage. I don't want to question Mr. Woo's faith or optimism, but you sure wouldn't infer it from watching The Killer."

You could say Woo has a Passion for movie making...

Matthew Dessem said...

If John Woo had made the Passion, there would have been 250 thieves crucified alongside Jesus. rocket launcher! Which Jesus would have fired, following his own peculiar moral code.

Wes Rumph said...

where did you get a copy of the criterion edition of the killer?! i've been looking for a copy of this for about 2 years now, and i can't find it anywhere. i figured once criterions went out of print, they disappeared all together.
so, seriously, where'd you get it?

Matthew Dessem said...

eBay! There's one for sale on there right now, actually, for about $180--but I bought a bootleg for I think about $30. Early Criterion Collection DVDs were mostly single layer, which means they can be flawlessly copied onto DVD-Rs. That's how I saw this and Salo--I figure since there's no way for me to afford actually buying the originals (and since Criterion doesn't make any money off resales anyway) my conscience is clear.

Anonymous said...

Hi Matthew,

So John Woo…apparently not of the “less is more” school of filmmaking. And that’s my biggest problem (I have a few) with this one, Matthew. Once the body count gets above, say, sixty, doesn’t it all begin to get a bit monotonous? With only one exception (someone is stabbed rather than shot), they all die pretty much the same death. For me, the most effective scenes were when the shooting stopped, and I think the highlight here is the scene you mentioned in your write-up, the standoff between Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee in the singer’s apartment.

Yes, there is some terrific film making here. But film is more than craft, and I think it is fair game to tackle the morality of this film. It struck me as simplistic. The killer with a heart of gold? He’s not that bad himself because he only kills bad guys? Not entirely buying that line of reasoning.

I also find it disingenuous for Woo, in his commentary, to repeatedly proclaim himself a pacifist only to vicariously and vividly knock-off a hundred or so extras in less than two hours. He says himself at another point in the commentary that he looks for ways to film violence beautifully. I don’t follow the reasoning. It’s a big disconnect for me. But I must confess to the same disconnect with Scorcese. His mild-mannered, well-tailored persona doesn’t jibe with his obsessively bloody body of work. Don’t get me wrong; I think Scorcese is a rightly revered artist. I just don’t want to spend any time alone in a room with the man.

Chow Yun-Fat is a very charismatic actor, but I thought Danny Lee hit this one out of the park.

And finally, in the commentary Woo talked about casting two former television stars (Tsang Kong and Chu Kong) in the roles of the older mentors, Chang and Sidney. Their long careers added subliminal weight to their characterizations for Woo’s domestic audience. Even after hearing this, however, these actors remain unknown to me. I realize that there will always be some nuance lost to me when viewing foreign films.

(Nice use of “carnage” and “abattoir” by the way.)

Matthew Dessem said...

John B.,

Yep, the movie's not on very firm moral ground--and you're right, the final shootout especially is a bit dull.

Interesting info about Tsang Kong and Chu Kong being TV stars. Thanks for passing it on!

Anonymous said...

In Hong Kong, pretty much everyone has done extensive TV work before doing movies. The only notable exceptions I can think of is Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Hard-hitting actors (and Woo graduates, in this case) like Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung, or Tony Leung have had long TV careers.

Chow Yun Fat, for example, is actually more known in Hong Kong for the 1970's TV series "The Bund" than pretty much his entire movie repertoire, with the exception of A Better Tomorrow.