Saturday, July 31, 2010


Ostensibly, the ingredients of John Woo’s seminal “heroic bloodshed” opus ‘The Killer’ make it sound like a cinematic cocktail (or, more appropriately, a cinematic Molotov cocktail):

Take one existentially iconic hitman a la Jean-Pierre Melville, a dash of Sirkian melodrama (preferably the ‘Magnificent Obsession’ vintage), a double measure of visual imagery from early Scorsese, and a liberal helping of Peckinpahesque slo-mo. Add white doves. Blend.

Which would constitute a pretty accurate and unprecedentedly short (65 word) review, the only addition to which would be a handful of kick-ass screen shots, were it not for the fact that Woo transcends every borrowing, every homage, every lovingly crafted frame of reference and creates something that is stylistically and emotionally his own.

Or, to put it another way, Woo does what very few other directors have ever done with such a degree of success (I can think only of Tarantino offhand): he synthesises his influences so completely that while the end product is beholden on virtually every level – narratively, aesthetically, everything else that ends in “–ly” – to a plethora of other, earlier works, it nonetheless pulls together these diverse strands in a manner that either goes beyond or in a completely different direction to those selfsame influences.

In ‘Le Samourai’, Melville doesn’t have Alain Delon cauterize an exit wound by tamping gunpowder over it and applying a lighted cigarette. In ‘The Wild Bunch’, Peckinpah doesn’t stage the bunch’s climactic shoot-out with Mapache’s army against a backdrop of religious imagery, flickering candles and white doves. And, yes, Melville and Peckinpah don’t make these aesthetic choices for a reason. But Woo does. And that’s kind of the point in and of itself.

The simplest (and least critically valid) summation is that Woo doesn’t certain things – particularly with regard to his use of slow motion, freeze frames and dissolves – because they fucking look cool as fuck. Which they do. And if you can shoot an action scene that’s as balletic, iconic, dynamic and hyper-kinetic as a John Woo action scene, then screw it, you’ve earned the right to do that kind of thing for its own sake and to hell with anything deeper like thematic content, characterisation and moral imperatives.

Woo, however, does things not just because they fucking look cool as fuck but because they contribute to the thematic content of his work, because they define and develop the characterisation, and because he is concerned with the moral imperatives of honour, guilt and redemption. Then, and only then, does the fact that they fucking look cool as fuck come into play.

Let’s revisit that phrase “moral imperative”. Sometimes it’s the directors whose work appears most violent, or attracts the most controversy, who prove themselves as having the more demonstrable morality: it’s true of Sam Peckinpah, true of Michael Haneke, true of John Woo. Haneke’s approach is one of cool, detached cerebralism; his aesthetic rigidly formalist. Woo, like Peckinpah, is a more emotionally involved filmmaker. He is acutely conscious of the way men interact and the codes that bind or divide them. He understands the mindset of the outcast, the criminal, the (conventionally speaking) bad guy. He sees the wounded and compromised humanity in them. Sometimes it’s a defeated sense of humanity; sometimes it’s retrievable.

‘The Killer’ is about a thoughtful and ultra-professional hitman, Ah Jong (Chow Yun Fat) who accidentally blinds nightclub singer Jenny (Sally Yeh) during a hit that turns into a fully-fledged gun battle. During the aftermath, rather than go to ground, he undertakes the proverbial one last job in order to raise money for the cornea transplant that could restore Jenny’s sight, despite the fact that maverick cop Inspector Ying (Danny Lee) is on his trail and unaware that his former paymasters are about to double cross him.

It sounds generic, clichéd and predictable. In Woo’s hands, it’s a dementedly excessive but savagely beautiful and often ludicrously funny work of art.


Scott Kos said...

Excellent piece. I think the choice faced by Woo and many other latter-day filmmakers dealing with ground that a billion other people have already covered is this: the only way to put your own stamp on things is to take all those familiar elements and push them almost to the point of parody.

If I ever decide to blog about something besides Sam Peckinpah films, I may very well pull out some of my old John Woo films.

Neil Fulwood said...

Scott, thanks for commenting. For some inexplicable reason I've managed to remain oblivious to your blog till now. That's been rectified and you're now on the blogroll. Your posts on Sam Peckinpah (my personal favourite director) are awesome, particularly that two-parter on 'Straw Dogs'.

Bryce Wilson said...

I can never decide if this or Bullet In The Head is my favorite from Woo (though I think I'd be inclined to give Bullet the slightest of edges.. then again ask me tomorrow and it could be reversed)

Still this movie is just fantastic. Woo's films are all operatic, but with precious little tweaking this one could be an opera.

J.D. said...

Excellent review! I love this film and along with HARD-BOILED, is an awesome one-two punch of Hong Kong ultra-violence, Woo style! It's a shame that when he started working in Hollywood he was forced to water down his style so much - FACE/OFF the notable exception. I'm really curious to see his latest one which saw him return to HK.

Neil Fulwood said...

Bryce - I'd probably give 'Bullet in the Head' pride of place above (but only ever so slightly above) 'The Killer'. 'Bullet' is the John Woo where the heroic bloodshed and balletic action are delivered in spades, but the stylisations are toned down just enough so that it has a real and palpable edge about it.

J.D. - I've not seen his latest yet either, but I understand it reteams him with Chow Yun Fat and after years of watered-down Hollywood efforts this can only be a good thing.