A good Western, a good Samurai film and a good crime story all address the same issue: what is right and what is wrong? The characters in these films usually act based on an inner moral code and a sense of honor. This is the case for Chow Yun Fat in John Woo’s The Killer.
Jong, Chow Yun Fat, is an “unusual killer.” He is intense without malice, a determined killer with a sense of pride and honor. When he accidentally blinds Jenny, his guilt leads him back to her. He keeps his identity from her for as long as possible, but soon Jennie leads Jong to Inspector Ying.
Inspector Ying is an “unusual cop.” He has his own methods which are considered dangerous. He values justice over anything else, and he recognizes that the law can only go so far in insuring that justice. Inspector Ying and Jong are cut from the same cloth. Though they are enemies, they admire each other’s work and ethics. When Ying witnesses Jong save an innocent young girl caught in some crossfire, he realizes that Jong is not typical. A great crime story blends the line of good and evil, and John Woo does that masterfully. The film becomes a tale of loyalty and honor. Ying realizes that arresting Jong is not the right thing to do. Instead he offers his friendship, and helps Jong fight the Triads.
The film has a strong theme of redemption. Jong’s friend Fung Sei betrays him, but Jong spares him. Fung Sei gives his life to right his wrong, and in the end Jong kills him to put him out of his misery. Jong’s own story is a quest for a redemption, a quest that comes up short, as he is blinded before he dies. The imagery of the church and the doves reinforce this theme. Jong is bound to a sense of duty, but in the end he is still a killer, not worthy of the innocent Jennie and too full of sin for redemption. He is blinded because he can never stop killing, not even after he makes a promise to Jennie to stop.
John Woo’s fresh take on an old theme also paid homage, by my account, to a couple of crime stories from years past. Jong’s harmonica riffs remind me of Tokyo Drifter and Once Upon A Time in the West, two movies featuring characters who have their own particular moral code. The “one bullet” speech is reminiscent of Dirty Harry, yet another figure who operates right outside of the law. Lastly, I couldn’t help but think of Boondock Saints as I watched this film. I’m sure Troy Duffy had to have seen this movie. The brothers style in the movie is similar to Jong’s and the inspectors both have the same character. They both become obsessed with their subjects, relive their crimes and eventually help the men they are chasing.
John Woo’s The Killer is an action-packed film, but the characters make the film more than a shoot-em-up thrill ride. The audience wants Jong to succeed, they want Fung Sei to be redeemed, and they want Jennie to get a new set of corneas. Things don’t work out in the end, though Jong dies honorably, the old axiom holds true: live by the sword, die by the sword.