Posted: 07/26/2002


The Killer


by Garnet Brooks

This DVD is available for purchase at

Film Monthly Home
Wayne Case
Steve Anderson
The Rant
Short Takes (Archived)
Small Screen Monthly
Behind the Scenes
New on DVD
The Indies
Film Noir
Coming Soon
Now Playing
Books on Film
What's Hot at the Movies This Week
Interviews TV

The Killer by John Woo is not just a nonstop blood-fest; it is a stylish and emotionally engaging film. Chow Yun-Fat is Jeffrey, a professional killer who begins to feel remorse when an innocent bystander named Jennie is blinded during one of his hits. Remorse and concern for her turn to love.

If Jeffrey is an atypical killer, his enemy Inspector Li is an unusual cop. Li is rebellious and often in trouble with his superiors. Hail of bullets aside, much of the film involves the development of the relationship between the two men. Visually, this is conveyed by their characteristic stance facing each other arms outstretched holding a gun to each other’s faces. The two men eventually grow on each other. The film is about loyalty and friendship.

Jeffrey has another friend, his fellow killer Sydney who having been wounded now acts as a broker, lining up hits and negotiating fees. The last contract Jeffrey takes is to pay for Jennie’s cornea transplant. After this hit is successful the crime boss Weng decides not to pay Jeffrey and arranges an ambush. One can tell who the real bad guys are: they are the ones who don’t keep their word. Sydney keeps his word though it costs him his life. During this, Jeffrey rescues a child wounded in the crossfire and takes her and to a hospital. This causes him to see things differently. Much of the rest of the movie involves eluding Weng’s men. During the film, wave after wave of men assault Jeffery and Inspector Li. Emotionally the shooting seems nonstop, as insistent as the viewer’s own heartbeat. Actually, this is not so; between the scenes of battle are quiet tranquil moments usually near water. The first and last scenes are in a church.

In John Woo’s audio commentary to the DVD, he says he admires two directors: Martin Scorsese and Jean-Pierre Melville. The similarities to Taxi Driver and Le Samourai are obvious. As in Taxi Driver, Woo enters into the emotional life and mind of the killer, and surprisingly, we can understand and sympathize with him. Woo, like Scorsese, focuses the camera intensely on the main characters’ faces. In Melville’s film Le Samourai, his professional killer’s name is Jef. Like Jeffrey, Jef’s life begins to change when he cares for someone. You can’t be an effective hit man and like people. And, if you can’t do your job, you are unlikely to survive. Stylistically, The Killer bears resemblances to Seijun Sezuki’s Tokyo Drifter, whose hero, Tetsuya Hondo, is a killer tormented by questions of honor and intimacy with people. (Also, Hondo and Jeffrey are natty dressers.)

The Killer is visually beautiful. The scenes of the peaceful church filled with candles gives an otherworldly quality to the film. There is a complex symbolic interplay of issues of good and evil. In the beginning of the film Inspector Li is wearing a white jacket with black stripes and Jeffrey dresses in black. At the end of the film Inspector Li is dressed in black with white stripes and Jeffrey is wearing a white suit. The heroic characters do things wrong but they try. The real bad guys have no honor or capacity for friendship. In the final shootout at the church, the viewer may hold the hope that Jeffrey is going to live, though the way out for him is not obvious. Jeffrey is there to meet his fate. Out of friendship, Inspector Li fights beside him.

Garnet Brooks is the pen name for a writer, psychologist, former literature teacher, and film buff.

Got a problem? E-mail us at