Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Killer: Criterion (1989)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision - One Vicious Killer. One Relentless Cop... ...Ten Thousand Bullets.

Hot-shot Hong Kong director John Woo fashions a nervy thriller about an assassin seeking one last hit. Chronicling the lives of the super-cool hitman and the tough cop who trails him, The Killer is aggressively violent and exhilaratingly passionate. The movie bristles with pyrotechnic gunplay and exquisite slow-motion sequences. Presented in a new widescreen transfer, approved by John Woo.

Director: John Woo
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Sally Yeh, Danny Lee, Kenneth Tsang, Chu Kong, Lam Chung.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1; audio Cantonese Digital Mono; subtitles English; single sided - single layered; 41 chapters; rated NR; 110 min.; $39.98; street date 3/30/98; Out-of-Print.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by director John Woo & producer Terence Chang; Deleted Scenes; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/D+/B-

John Woo's transition into Hollywood was fairly rough. His Van Damme effort Hard Target is really only known as one of Van Damme's better movies, which is not saying much. Broken Arrow will never be confused for a good movie. Only Face/Off comes closest to being a fairly good movie in his American efforts.

And the reason Face/Off is probably his best Hollywood film to date because it shares a lot of the same structures as The Killer, one many consider his best Hong Kong films.

I would have to also join that group. I've only seen a few of his movies (including this and the ones mentioned above, the only other I have seen is Hard Boiled) so that would explain why. It's a very energetic and fast paced action film that has a surprisingly good story, a point (somewhat) and some pretty good characters.

The story is of "John" (Chow Yun-Fat), a professional killer who has had enough with his profession. In the beginning we see him in a church, accepting his next assignment. He strolls into a bar quite smoothly, finds his target and we then get the first of many sensational action sequences. During this shoot-out, though, a gun damages the eyes of a singer, Jenny (Sally Yeh). John feels responsible for this and begins taking her out and generally taking care of her. He learns that her sight is deteriorating even more and if she does not receive treatment soon, she will go blind.

This will of course cost money so John takes up one last job, killing a rich businessman. As it turns out this businessman is a Triad mob boss. His nephew is the one that has hired John to do the business. But once John has done this, not only has his friend who set-up the hit betrayed him, but the now new Triad boss wants John dead, instead of paying him. Now John must somehow get his money, not get killed by the Triad men and escape a rather vengeful police Detective (Danny Lee).

The action scenes are all marvelously executed, done in slow-mo and very balletic. His most amazing scene would definitely have to be the conclusion in the church (which would later be used, almost exactly, in Face/Off). Of course all the men that are in these scenes (other than our heroes) are lined up to be killed, the scene is very quick and well choreographed and those bad guys go down very nicely. The action scenes are well spread out and not over-done like they are in the excessive Hard Boiled.

I found the plotting and characters are quite good. There is a lot of emotion and deep thoughts about friendship and morality. I was very amazed at this. The characters was also the one thing that blew me away in Face/Off. I mean they had real motives! I actually believed in those characters, even in their outlandish situation. The Killer presents some tortured and very confused characters all looking for some sort of meaning and purpose. The film focuses on the cop and the killer, and despite the violences, and even though one of them kills for money, they do want to improve things and make the world a better place to live. They just achieve it in different ways. I have trouble that they become friends so quickly, though. It happens a little too fast for my tastes.

The Killer has obviously become the standard for most present day action director's (mostly straight-to-tape), but I have not seen one that manages to mix action, story, character and style together like this one. My appreciation for John Woo and his movies grew quite a bit after viewing this dazzler.

The DVD:

Criterion has given the film a modest release on DVD as well. It's not as over-blown as their Hard Boiled release but it's better. Between the two, The Killer wins for it's less-is-more effect in both film and DVD.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single sided, single layered disc. It is not enhanced for widescreen TVs.

The picture is pretty good but far from perfect. The picture is very sharp and I never noticed a soft spot. Day scenes are very bright and the night scenes appear adequate. Black levels are not as they should, but just appear as a really dark gray so it's not too bad. What the film does suffer from is grain and debris. Grain isn't too bad but a few scenes (especially in the closing) suffer from it. Debris appears a lot as specks and the occasional mark. Colours are generally rendered appropriately. During day shots the colours appear very well but darker scenes make the colours become a little dull. All I have to say is that the picture on a whole is better than Criterion's release of Hard Boiled and this one is 3 years older. Still, a C is appropriate.

The sound is a problem, though. It's a mono track and a pretty bad one. It's not the worst I've ever heard but it suffers with problems. Of course, some of this could be because of the fact I don't speak a single word of Chinese, true, but it's in other areas that the film suffers. Music scores are very harsh, especially in the opening titles. Yet gunfire and explosions are very flat and plain. This rather surprised me because I know that even more can be done with a mono track. I'm sure it could have been improved on. Suspicion says this is just a plain rehash of the Criterion laserdisc.

There is no English track, which surprised me. They even included one with Hard Boiled. Why not here? I don't care personally. I prefer the original language with subtitles just because dubbed movies drive me up the wall (I usually spend too much time laughing at the poor quality of the dub-Hard Boiled). But not everyone is like me. I know there is an English track available and it would have been considerate to include it.

Criterion has included a few supplements with their DVD edition. While not as plentiful as the Hard Boiled disc, I find these much better.

The first is a commentary by John Woo and production executive Terence Chang. It's a fairly good track, but I did have a hard time understanding John Woo's heavy accent. What I could make out, though, was very good (I found it fascinating Woo knows nothing about guns). Not only do they offer production notes and explanations on action sequences, Woo actually goes into his characters and explains their motivations. This actually helped me better understand some of the character's (if I didn't understand them completely before it's because I'm not used to thinking during an action movie).

Included as well are 5 deleted scenes. Woo originally released the film a little longer. He felt it was too long and decided to cut out more scenes to make it shorter. He was nice enough to include them here. They are not too important and would have added nothing to the film I felt. They are mostly expansions on other scenes. But it's still a thoughtful and interesting extra (John Woo has a little Kubrick in him - Kubrick did the same with The Shining and can someone tell me why Warner didn't include them with the DVD!? Sorry, got off subject, there). You then have the theatrical trailer that is obviously the American one (the English narrator gives it away).

Yeah, it's sparse, but I found they offered more info and value than all of Hard Boiled's selection of supplements. This is also another DVD Criterion has discontinued! And it is also the most sought after from my experiences (I had an extra one and I couldn't believe all the people that wanted it - sorry, I have sold it). So while it is still fairly easy to find on auctions and at some collector's shows, it can still be hard to find because everyone is picking them up quick and they are going well over $100. So, is it worth it? No, I can't say so. But if you're die-hard for it and my review doesn't matter, then do what you were going to do before you read this and get it.

In closing, the film is great but unless you can find the DVD fairly cheap I can't wholly recommend it. If you want to add the film to your collection I would suggest waiting for another studio to release it on DVD (even though the picture and possibly the sound might be worse).

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