This is just about the most stylish film I have ever seen. It is not
driven by plot or even by the action, but by a moral aesthetic. The
leading character reflects the director's overall vision in microcosm.
The assassin is such a beautiful man, both sensually and spiritually.
He projects an amazing stillness into explosive action that he seems to
orchestrate whenever he is in it, bringing the qualities of the artist
as hero to a stock role. We don't need the Catholic sets to know that
this man is religious. He doesn't believe in God, but he sits in the
chapel for the quiet. There no doubt he reflects on his life quest, for
the freedom to be both human and himself, learning to embrace universal
morality (truth, love, faith and friendship), while doing his job
superbly well. No wonder everyone loves him -- the singer he blinded,
the cop who wants to catch him, the friend who betrayed him, John Woo
who wrote and directed him, the camera of course and the rest of us who
are spellbound by his charisma. Chow Yun Fat achieves here a graceful
power that evokes Maggie Cheung, the compelling star of In The Mood For
How could so much gratuitous violence be beautiful, even morally uplifting? I had a clue to the answer by accident. The last time I watched the video, I cut back to the main TV for the rewind and dropped into the climax of a spaghetti western with Eastwood and Van Cleef (I am not sure which one). There the villain is taken out with one bullet delivered by a sleight of hand too fast to see and with invisible, but mortal bodily effects. Woo's film has dozens of killings in it, often in substantial batches. Here most of the victims take multiple bullets with gruesome consequences and some of them carry on fighting after that. The violence is brilliantly choreographed, but it is also brutally realistic in ways that few westerns are. Our killer confronts a vicious society on its terms in a way that enhances, rather than detracts from his own humanity.
The achievement of The Killer is to reveal human possibility in the most degraded of social settings. The message is that goodness can be found in unlikely people and places. Goodness is also beautiful.
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