The best John Woo movie, and the main reason action-movie dorks speak the guy’s name in hushed tones, is 1992’s Hard-Boiled. That’s the last one he made in Hong Kong before he came over to America and found ways to inject his bullet-riddled absurdism into Hollywood’s system, and it’s the one where he pushed his dazed, ecstatic slow-motion-gunplay style to its furthest possible conclusion. It never lets up, and its entire final half-hour is a single, incredible, beautifully choreographed shootout in and around a hospital. If you keep a list of your Top 5 action movies and that one isn’t on it, burn that list and start again. If you’re reading this and somehow haven’t seen Hard-Boiled, stop reading immediately and find a way to go watch it right now. Leave work for the day if you have to. Incredible as it is, though, it isn’t the most iconic of Woo’s movies. That title goes to 1989’s The Killer, which truly defined his visual style and gave a few generations of action directors something to rip off.
If you’ve ever seen a dove fluttering in slow motion in an action movie, or a chapel where every single surface is covered in candles, or someone in a beautifully tailored suit firing two guns at once, you’ve either seen The Killer or you’ve seen someone (possibly Woo himself) biting The Killer. It’s a movie that created its own visual language and left a seismic impact on almost everything that came afterward. Woo was making great gangster flicks in Hong Kong before this, and some of his contemporaries were doing the same. But this was the moment he left behind any idea of realism forever, focusing instead on the beauty of bodies flying through the air and blood squibs exploding under white shirts. It’s a movie where Chow Yun-Fat’s eyes seem to dance even when he’s got bullets whizzing all around him. It’s a piece of art, something to stare at.
The story is about as close to pure melodrama as you can get, as long as you’re still making a film about dudes shooting each other. Chow is Jeff, a principled hitman who accidentally blinds a nightclub singer during a gunfight while trying to protect her from the horde of criminal adversaries popping up behind every table. Riddled with guilt, he saves her from a mugging and, without letting her know that he’s the reason she’s blind, comes into her life and does whatever he can to protect her. To make enough money to pay for her sight-restoring surgery, he agrees to the fabled One Last Job. He does that job, but an obsessed and driven cop sees him and chases him. And because the cop saw him, the unprincipled asshole crime boss who commissioned the hit refuses to pay Chow and tries to kill him instead. And while singlemindedly pursuing Chow, the cop, played by Danny Lee, learns that he’s a fellow warrior soul, someone to be respected. By the end, when the asshole crime boss’s horde of assassins are bursting through the stained glass windows of the church where they’re hiding out, Chow and Lee are friends and allies.
I’m describing the whole plot—something I don’t much like doing—because it’s hard to figure out what’s happening while it’s happening, mostly because it requires complete and absolute suspension of disbelief. You have to believe, for instance, that the crime boss is so protective of the $100,000 he’d agreed to pay Chow that he’s willing to send scores of underlings to their deaths to avoid paying the man. You have to believe that the blind singer wouldn’t be the slightest bit suspicious about Captain Save-A-Blind-Singer swooping in and putting up all his mysterious money to fix her eyes, never really asking who he is or what he’s got going on in his past. You have to believe that a stubborn pitbull cop would completely switch allegiances, practically falling in love with the killer he’s been hunting when that killer reveals himself to be a man with scruples.
None of this makes any sense, but it doesn’t matter at all, since it all looks and moves the way it does. Chow holds it together with the sort of leading-man flair that never really came across when he came to Hollywood and started making imitation-Killer stuff like The Replacement Killers. (That title had to be some kind of meta-commentary joke, right?) He dresses beautifully, keeps his hair impeccable, and carries himself with a sort of stillness and grace and confidence that’s closer to Cary Grant or Gregory Peck than any of his action-movie peers. There’s a scene where Lee is trying to describe Chow to a police sketch artist, and he leaves behind physical descriptors completely and basically just writes a love poem about Chow: “Acts like he has a dream! Full of passion!” (Later on, we see Lee staring at a completely photorealistic police sketch of Chow, so apparently that description was dead-on.) There’s been a lot of talk about how homoerotic the two men’s relationship in the movie becomes, and sure, that’s definitely an element here. But it also seems like a totally rational response to Chow’s presence.
Woo surrounds that lead performance with crazy things that push everything further into a sort of unreality: the ethereal synth-score, the dizzy handheld cinematography, the gorgeous violence. The gunfights in the movie are gruesome and excessive and incredible. None of the characters ever fires a single shot when 12 will do. Nobody ever worries about running out of bullets. There are moments where they’re clearly just emptying rounds into dead bodies. And in the context of the reality that the movie builds, that makes its own kind of sense. The most intriguing and fun part of that reality might be the emphasis all these mass murderers place on the idea of honor. Chow is aghast at the idea that his friend and triad contact might be working to betray him; he’s cool with wiping out vast crowds of enemies, but he can’t believe anyone would do that to him. And that same friend argues to his evil mob boss that he should pay Chow the agreed-upon killing fee first, and then kill him. Like everything else about the movie, the ethical code at the heart of it is weirdly beautiful and totally, impossibly incomprehensible.
The Killer blew people’s minds when it first circulated among American movie-nerd types in the early ‘90s. And even though it’s been imitated to death, it still holds up as pretty great on its own terms now. The version that just appeared on Netflix is the dubbed-into-English version, and it’s always irritating when that’s the only way to experience a movie. But at least in this case, that means you get to pick out the samples that eventually appeared on Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. It’ll be one more element of deja vu in a film full of them. Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ve seen it, but it’s still very much worth all the time you’re willing to give it.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: Payback | The Good, the Bad, the Weird | The Professional | Supercop | The Man With the Iron Fists 2 | Flash Point | The Way of the Dragon | Skyfall | Chocolate | Dirty Mary Crazy Larry | Iron Monkey | XXX | Headhunters | The Running Man |Project A | Homefront | Drug War | Robocop | Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | Blood and Bone | Man of Tai Chi | Bloodsport | Battle Royale | Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi | Tombstone| Fearless | Red Dawn | Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off |The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor| The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China |Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master