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‘The Killer’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 10, 1991

Watching John Woo's "The Killer" may be like eating popcorn, but it's not just any old brand; it's escape-velocity popcorn, popcorn with a slurp of rocket fuel. Its story is a collision of exuberant pulp, samurai mythology and modern, urban noir. The main character is a hired gun named Jeffrey (Chow Yung-Fat) who wants out of the business but can't quit until he kills one last time. The reason for this farewell hit is to finance an operation to restore the eyesight of a beautiful cabaret singer (Sally Yeh) who wandered accidentally into the line of fire during his last job.

That Jeffrey is haunted by the memory of this accident -- that he has a conscience at all -- shows what a purely pop creation he is. Jeffrey isn't simply a thug, he's a man who approaches his job philosophically, a man with a code, an artist even, who is selective about his targets and just as interested in the aesthetics of killing as he is in the money he makes. It's also in keeping with the comic book spirit of the film that Jennie, the singer, is a doll and that the two fall desperately in love.

Woo bangs his story around as if it were a ping-pong ball. After Jeffrey makes his final hit, he becomes a target for both a renegade cop named Lee (Danny Lee) and the head of the crime syndicate who hired him and wants to avoid paying the bill. This puts him at the center of a virtual downpour of lead, and if there's anything Woo knows how to handle, it's bullets.

The director's greatest gift is his talent for Dexedrine-spiked, apocalyptic action; he's a combination of Peckinpah and Mack Sennett. The violence in "The Killer" is virtually nonstop, and if the film has a fault it's that there are too many epiphanies for one sitting; Woo keeps trying to top himself, to jack up the level with every shootout, but instead we start to overdose on the balletic mayhem. A little less, in this case, might be more, but Woo is a more-is-more filmmaker; all he knows how to do is stomp metal and streak toward the edge.

Few directors have the chutzpah to be as extravagantly preposterous -- or the talent to back it up -- that Woo has. It's a waste of time to talk about "The Killer" in terms of character or emotion; in that respect, all of Woo's heroes are merely icons, symbolic dancers whose movements he choreographs. That Jeffrey and Lee, the hunted and the hunter, join together in a kind of spiritual brotherhood to save Jennie seems predestined; they're both samurai loners, heroes, men apart. And it seems perfectly fitting, too, that Woo's precipice-dancing should result in overwrought tragedy. With this kind of talent, how could he resist blowing everything sky high?

Stylized kineticism isn't merely one of Woo's traits, it's his essence. Which is another way of saying that though his gifts are sizable, they're also one-dimensional. His ideas overreach themselves with such a virile swagger that they border on comedy. With excess like this you can't help but laugh. This is a rush of a movie.

"The Killer" is unrated and is in Chinese with subtitles.

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