Having seen only two of John Woo's Chinese films now, I'm starting to understand why they're so much better than his American films. They're just as silly but they're earnest as hell. The two I've watched, 1986's A Better To-morrow and 1989's The Killer have very similar plots--Chow Yun-fat plays a gangster, a supernaturally expert killer, and another guy plays the cop intent on busting him before they finally join forces for a decadent gun battle at the climax.
The Killer is definitely the better of the two films, as it streamlines the plot a bit more and moves Yun-fat to a more central role. It's not hard watching these films to see why he became a star. He has the remarkable poise and capacity for sudden violent and precise movement that make a great action star.
Wikipedia says Woo was inspired by the films of Martin Scorsese but The Killer seems more in line with the films of Sylvester Stallone, featuring the pariah killing machine like the Rambo movies, though it's much more delightful than those films.
It's hard to think of a Scorsese movie that even approaches the level of melodrama in The Killer--Yun-fat plays a contract killer named Ah Jong who stipulates in every job that the person he kills be thoroughly bad. Then, during the first of the film's several long shootouts where everyone shooting at Ah Jong misses and everyone he shoots at gets killed, he accidentally blinds Jennie (Sally Yeh), a beautiful young piano player he tries to protect. Already the needle on the melodrama meter has broken past the Dickens mark.
Wracked with guilt, Ah Jong dedicates himself to protecting and helping Jennie in any way he can, going to watch her perform night after night and eventually becoming her lover after he beats up some thugs trying to mug her. All the while she never discovers he's the same man who blinded her.
Danny Lee plays Detective Li Ying, and it's the moral conflict between the two men that drives the film. Li Ying hates Ah Jong with intense passion, even after witnessing the assassin protecting a small child who got caught in crossfire between gangsters and police, even going so far as to drive her to the hospital, all through a hail of bullets.
It feels like guns are being fired for around 75 percent of this movie and around 20 percent of it, Li Ying and Ah Jong are having an intense conversation while holding guns on each other.
Are you an accurate subtitle?
In both this and in A Better To-morrow, one senses Woo is passionately caught up in the idea of the law not being in the right and how the system makes things unfair for good people. It would be a noir if it wasn't so silly. As it is, it's rather endearing.