Monday, December 7, 2009

"The Killer" - John Woo at his height

Oh, John Woo... Western audiences just don't get it. Sure, "Broken Arrow" and "Face/Off" have their fans (myself among them), but most never heard of "Once a Thief," "Hard Boiled," or "A Better Tomorrow." Like Jackie Chan and Jet Li after him, the West didn't know what to do with JW. Hollywood only knew his huge rep, and his strong box office results. Thus, the US got "Hard Target," "Paycheck," "Windtalkers," and "MI:2:the annoying nonsense."

We're talking about an auteur on par with anybody you can name - even if Woo is just an action director. He was reduced to some pricey movies marketed as "Cruise's/Cage's/Affleck's next hit," or (sigh) "Jean Claude's Van Damme's next hit." None of these financial/critical flops were hailed as "John Woo's next film." Watch this, and you'll know who the real star was.

In the end, the Hollywood big-wigs had no more sense than auto-exec fools who just kept manufacturing SUVs. Those dummies fired factory workers when an over-exposed product couldn't keep over-performing with consumers. Likewise, Hollywood gets good people to work on bad projects, then lays the blame on the wrong factors...

So let us look at "The Killer," and a foreign master at the peak of his powers. John Woo was a man operating in the UK's Hong Kong, in the versatile and competitive HK film market. This unique field allowed many artists to flourish and focus on some of the cinematic basics that can largely die a quiet death within the American film industry.

Oh! This is what it sounds like when doves cry.

1989's "The Killer" is a story about a top-notch assassin. Chow Yun Fat (HK's Cary Grant. Seriously.) is that assassin, and he's freakishly good at what he does. In keeping with Woo's best work, the protagonist's violence has a hypnotic beauty that seems like a sort of murderous ballet. Woo's magic allows part of it to seem acceptably choreographed, while the other part passes as horrificly-impromptu realism.

Our hitman is not some barely-contained psychopath - he's portrayed as a Chinese "ronin," a warrior whose sense of honor cannot be confused. At the start of the film, he's tasked to kill a crime boss, and he executes the target(and those pesky bodyguards) with no qualms. But a lovely young singer gets in the way, and she's blinded by Fat's final shot. That bullet saved her life (and his), but made her go blind. Fat is now a tormented man.

From then on, Fat visits her night club. He sits to hear her sing the same song repeatedly (suspension of disbelief warning), and make sure that she gets home safely. The new situation also causes him to seek one final job that will pay to have her sight restored.

Worst. Boss. Ever.
What follows is, partially, man at his most manly. Men of principles adhere to their sense of honor in the face of absurd situations. Usually, these men - both cops and crooks - must also struggle with "superiors" who act selfishly, stupidly, and no honor or foresight.

Yet - of all the people! - our moral murderers stick to it. They fight to remain men with self-respect. Loyalty, of course, is also a strong theme.

Sure, us Westerners are used to the "cop on the edge" getting close to "the principled killer." But most wouldn't expect a picture like this to feature the growing relationship between the pair. Best of all, it's shown in a purely Eastern way whereby the two align themselves through observation, mutual interest, and conversation.

Further, this plays out while the titular hitman forms a deep connection with his unintended victim. It's so unexpected, as this genre often lacks genuine emotion and character development. All those aspects are also used really well - as these people collide, effective humor and tension result. Few blood-filled action pictures ever had a successful "comedy of manners" moment. The final surprise is the relationship between violence and story; it may be excessive, but it's also done with a purpose.

I hate this part of a wine-tasting.

Like a kind of brutal "Donnie Darko," all of this is leading somewhere; the audience must simply stick out the ride. John Woo's "The Killer" is a rare masterpiece of violence. It has since been aped in movies like "The Professional" (aka "Leon"), and countless others.

But it provides genuine thrills - and this is aided by, rather than in spite of, the many quiet scenes and subtle moments. It pulls you into a story of murderers with an implacable morality and magical 9mm handguns. In telling a modern samurai story, it captures everything that's good about the disgusting animosity that's the core of most action films.

Dozens of Tinseltown copycats managed to grasp the appeal of duel-wielding handguns, tossing clips or pistols to an ally in the middle of a firefight, or slowing down the action to watch death's scythe fall everywhere. Yet few - if any - managed to understand (or act on) the fact that this works best when you provide some insight into the characters' lives, thoughts, and motivations.

These Hollywood knockoffs comprehend even less this simple truth: that life is a series of fleeting emotions, and that these brief spells of happiness, guilt, and friendship can give so much meaning to a life that may end in a hail of bullets.

Few directors ever conveyed that like HK-era John Woo. It's a sublime level of manliness that didn't rely on machismo; it just was very in tune with it. Anyone can watch and enjoy "The Killer." I hope you will too...

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