The tagline for this movie sounds like it was also its elevator pitch: One vicious killer. One tough cop. Ten thousand bullets. And that is exactly what this movie is all about. I’ll spoil nothing by telling you that the story to this one is as subtle as a gunshot. A legendary Hong Kong hitman accidentally blinds a lounge singer during a shootout and decides to raise the money to repair her eyesight, all while being pursued by a loose-cannon cop who vows to bring him down. The killer gets betrayed by his employer, and he and the cop have to form an unlikely alliance and then blast their way through an army of criminal henchmen. That’s it. There is no more story than that. And believe me when I tell you, you really don’t need any more. It would just get in the way.
I’ll also spoil nothing for you by saying that I don’t think there is a single span of 10 minutes of screen time in this movie without somebody showing a gun. I’ll spoil nothing by noting that in this world, everybody shoots with a gun in both hands. In this world, guns never run dry until it’s time to give the heroes something else to shoot with because, well, they look cool when they switch up. And in this world, you shoot somebody at least seven times before they go down, because it is simply more badass to do it that way. I’ll spoil nothing by saying that there were so many bullets fired in the making of this production, that it probably caused a regional shortage of gunpowder for the next 18 months.
And why do I spoil nothing by telling you these things? Because like so much of everything director John Woo has ever done, The Killer is all about style and energy. Sometimes Woo’s particular blend of high-grain mayhem works better than others, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. (Mission Impossible II, we’re looking at you, kid.) But here? Here, it works like a charm. You can read a detailed description of this movie, and it’s kind of like reading all about your first kiss. To really get what this is about, you just have to experience it for yourself.
For as much carnage as there is here, there is also an undertone of friendship, honor and redemption that somehow elevates The Killer above that of a mere splatterhouse effort. The Killer may not be high cinema, but it’s an action movie with pretensions of at least trying to be something more than that. This is a movie with at least 100 on-screen deaths and yet it still gets taken seriously by film critics, if not for its intrinsic qualities as a story, then as a touchstone that would influence no small number of other filmmakers.
For as over-the-top as The Killer is, it also manages to maintain an evenness of pace that does not exhaust the viewer. It slowly ratchets things up so that by the time we have our final gun battle in what would become one of the most bullet-riddled churches in movie history, we go into it hungry for the action to begin. This, in a movie where the introductory gunfight exceeds in body count what most other movies would have reserved for the climax. That’s the moment of truth in The Killer: when you realize that even though we’ve already seen tons of white-suited mooks get gunned down already, we are still in the market to see a whole lot more.
This movie is a master class in stylized violence, and in an age where we tend to fret over what kind of message our art sends to its audience, and when there is enormous pressure to self-censor creatives on what kind of stories they wish to tell, The Killer doesn’t just write a love letter to the notion of a flawed hero redeeming himself by killing 10,000 bad guys. It paints it in tiny, beautiful calligraphy on an entire drum of heavy caliber ammo and then fires it all in the air, knowing that it aims to please by not aiming at all. It just rocks on full auto and knows that if it keeps it up long enough, it’ll get everybody. It sure got me with the opening salvo, though. I know that.
Violence is a vital ingredient to a lot of kinds of stories. But like any ingredient, it can be overdone, and the more of it you wish to use, the more skillful you must be with it. It is alright to write stories that extol the virtue of battle and of triumph. But if you’re going to do it, you need to create a compact with the audience wherein you set expectations early on and then meet those expectations perfectly. Do that, and you can have a slaughterhouse of a tale that will win the hearts of even the most skeptical of critics. And that is what I love most about this movie: how it redeems an absurd level of violence through a compelling stylistic treatment. You can do this with any low storytelling convention really, whether it’s pies in the face or fart jokes. The Killer does it with guns and bullets. But there is much to learn here if you can focus past the adrenal rush of the movie’s initial effect, which is why I come back to The Killer again and again. At first, it was to delight in the frenzy of the movie’s many battle scenes, but later, it was to understand why this movie works when there are ten thousand reasons within it for why it shouldn’t.