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The Killer is considered one of John Woo's all time greatest films, drawing from such influences as Jean-Pierre Melville's hitman drama Le Samourai and Chang Cheh's bloody masterpiece Vengeance. Chow Yun-Fat plays Hitman with a Heart Ah Jong, whose life changes forever when, in the middle of carrying out a hit at a restaurant, he accidentally blinds a beautiful lounge singer by the name of Jenny, played by Sally Yeh, with the muzzle flash of his gun. Several days later, Jong rescues Jenny from muggers who are out to rob her and gets to know the girl a bit better and is all the more wracked with remorse for it. Jong wants to leave the business behind so that he can be with her, but in order to raise the money to have Jenny's eyes fixed, he will need to perform one last job for his triad, which is to kill a guy by the name of Wong Dung-Yu.
Unfortunately for Jong, things do not turn out as planned. The boss of the triad, Wong Hoi, who is the nephew of the guy he sent Jong out to kill, would rather kill Jong than hand over the money that Jong's handler Fung Sei promised to him, as he wants to clear the table for his ruthless ambitions. Meanwhile, a cop by the name of Inspector Li Ying (played by Danny Lee, who is good at playing Cowboy Cops in general) has picked up Ah Jong's case, and as he gets to know both the assassin and the woman that he's going through hell for, the two heroes on opposite sides of the law develop a respect for each other that soon turns into a bond of friendship akin to blood brotherhood. As Fung Sei goes through hell to try to get the money for his friend, Wong Hoi has hired a replacement killer by the name of Paul Yau and a virtual army of assassins to get rid of Jong, and as everything goes straight to hell, Li becomes Jong's only ally against his double-crossing boss in a blazing final showdown that has come to define Heroic Bloodshed.
This movie built on the genre that was started with A Better Tomorrow and Heroes Shed No Tears and expanded upon it. In addition to the Heroic Bloodshed favorites of Guns Akimbo, slow-mo and themes of loyalty and betrayal. The Killer also popularized the use of the point-blank Mexican Standoff and introduced the Disturbed Doves, a motif that would show up in John Woo's later movies and made their first appearance during the apocalyptic church shootout that ended the movie. It also has one of the most tragic endings that Woo has ever done, in keeping with the tendency of Hong Kong and Asian cinema in general to end their more dramatic movies on a downer note.
This film provides examples of the following tropes:
- Almost-Lethal Weapons - Both heroes and villains in Heroic Bloodshed movies in general can take a lot of punishment.
- Back-to-Back Badasses - Ah Jong and Inspector Li during the church shootout.
- Badass - Ah Jong and Inspector Li both.
- Bash Brothers - Ah Jong and Inspector Li from the beach house shootout onwards.
- Big Bad - Wong Hoi/Johnny Weng.
- Blind and the Beast: Jenny and Ah Jong. Played with in that's it not Jong's appearance that could be considered unpleasant, rather his profession and the fact that it was him who blinded her, which she's initially unaware of.
- Blood Brothers - Two sets of these, Fung Sei being one on Ah Jong's side and Chang being one for Li. The two protagonists develop a bond like this toward the end of the movie.
- Bloodstained-Glass Windows - The final showdown at the church.
- Contract on the Hitman - The primary plot of the movie.
- Cowboy Cop - Inspector Li.
- Crucified Hero Shot - Ah Jong at one point during the church shootout.
- Died in Your Arms Tonight - Subverted with the dying Ah Jong and Jenny due to scheduling conflicts between their two actors.
- Diegetic Switch - Done with Jenny's song at the very beginning of the movie.
- Digital Destruction: The US Dragon Dynasty Blu-ray release of the film has some visible framerate resampling issues (eg. subtle motion blurs happening in every once in a while). This isn′t present in the HK Fortune Star Blu-ray release, which instead trades gratuitous motion blurring with terrible color correction, as many scenes have a noticeable pink hue.
- Disturbed Doves - This was the first John Woo movie to have them. He's used them ever since.
- Downer Ending - Which is actually a result of scheduling conflicts, no less!
- The Dragon - Paul Yau
- Eye Scream - The opening scene of Jenny's eyes being burned by Ah Jong's muzzle flash. And Chow Yun-Fat's eye was injured for real during filming, which can be seen during the climax.
- Groin Attack - Ah Jong's first kill at the restaurant.
- The Gunslinger - Most of the major characters are this in spades.
- Guns Akimbo - Ah Jong, Inspector Li and Wong Hoi towards the end.
- Gun Fu - A John Woo trademark.
- Heroic Bloodshed - One of the quintessential examples of the genre.
- Hitman with a Heart - Ah Jong, full stop.
- Honor Before Reason - Happens a lot in this movie.
- I Cannot Self-Terminate - Ah Jong has to put a bullet to Fung Sei after he fails to save a final bullet to finish himself off.
- It Works Better with Bullets - Ah Jong does this to Sidney during the confrontation at his apartment.
- Kill'Em All - By the end of the movie, the only major characters still alive are Jenny and Inspector Li, and both are in a very bad way, what with Jenny being all but blind forever and Li being arrested by his fellow cops and possibly sent to prison after the movie.
- Love At First Note - Ah Jong falls in love with Jenny upon hearing her sing at the nightclub where he is to kill his first target. Then the plot happens.
- Mexican Standoff - Ah Jong and Inspector Li get into these a lot, including a quite iconic point-blank standoff at Jenny's apartment.
- Must Make Amends: The title character's attempt to fix a tragic mistake that he made, which resulted in a beautiful singer being blinded by the muzzle-flash of his gun. The last hit that he goes on is an attempt to raise the money to have her eyes fixed, but unfortunately for him, his boss has other ideas. It does not end well for him.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown - Fung Sei receives a quite tearjerking one of these at the hands of Wong Hoi in his final attempt to get the Killer's money.
- One Last Job - Ah Jong has to do one of these to pay to have Jenny's eyes fixed.
- Put Down Your Gun and Step Away - Wong Hoi takes Jenny hostage in the movie's final standoff.
- Sanctuary of Solitude - In the very first scene when Fung Sei meets Ah Jong at the church, he asks if he believes in God. Ah Jong replies in the negative but that he "enjoys the tranquility here," making it clear that the church is a place of peace for him. The church gets blown to hell during the course of the final shootout.
- Scarf of Asskicking - Ah Jong during the first shootout.
- Sean Connery Is About to Shoot You
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog
- Sinister Shades - Paul Yau sports a set of these.
- Sympathy for the Devil - Inspector Li to Ah Jong.
- The Triads and the Tongs - Feature a lot in Heroic Bloodshed movies in general, and this movie is no exception.
- Turn in Your Badge - Li is taken off the case after getting the wrong guy at the airport, since the superintendent thinks the man is siding with the guy he's supposed to take in.
- Two Shots From Behind the Bar: The opening shootout featured a bartender with a shotgun. Needless to say, it didn't end well for him.
- What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic - In spades during the church shootout, including the destruction of the statue of Mary.
- White Shirt of Death: Ah Jong.