Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter listens to a film writer turned filmmaker talk about someone else’s work which in this case is John Woo’s The Killer.
John Woo has faded from Western eyes in recent years, but for a while there he was delivering some big action hits both at home and in the US. The 2017 film Manhunt features some crazy action sequences, but the filmmaker’s high point was with movies like The Killer (1989), Hard Boiled (1992), Hard Target (1993), and Face/Off (1997). It’s that first one that we’re focused on today with commentary from occasional filmmaker and full-time Hong Kong cinema fan Bey Logan. Keep reading to see what we heard on the commentary track for The Killer.
The Killer (1989)
Commentator: Bey Logan (Hong Kong cinema expert)
1. The film’s Cantonese title translates out to “battle blood two heroes,” with the more poetic translation being “Two heroes battling with the gangsters.”
2. The film was shot in ninety-two days for less than $2 million US.
3. Woo has previously acknowledged that the film was inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samurai (1967) which was in turn inspired by a novel titled The Ronin by Joan McLeod. Other inspirations mentioned include Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), and the films of Sam Peckinpah.
4. Woo was raised Lutheran Christian and found churches to be a peaceful, comfortable setting while living in Hong Kong. They welcome everyone from saints to sinners, so he felt it reflected the dueling natures of Ah Jong (Chow Yun Fat). Logan once asked him how he reconciled those beliefs with setting the film’s big, bloody finale in a church, and Woo suggested that showing the statues and holy items be shot up by bad guys confirms that good can be confronted by evil. That said, “good will overcome.”
5. Sally Yeh was a popular singing artist at the time, and along with Anita Mui was considered a pop diva. “They were like the Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey of Hong Kong of this era.”
6. The church scene where Ah goes to heal from the bullet wound features the first use of Woo’s now-signature doves.
7. Jennie’s (Yeh) hospital visit shows a vision of Ah firing his gun while blood fills the screen. It was reportedly inspired by the bloody elevator scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).
8. The film’s score by Lowell Lo uses some incidental music from Walter Hill’s Red Heat (1988).
9. While Fat is primarily known to Western audiences as an action star, his career in Hong Kong consisted mostly of romance and comedy films.
10. It was difficult to acquire prop guns in Hong Kong at the time, so all of the weaponry in the film was actually imported from England. Bringing them through customs was apparently its own headache.
11. Danny Lee actually trained to be a real police officer, but he found his way into acting — and his success at playing cops — instead.
12. Hong Kong’s Dragon Boat festival occurred five months before The Killer started filming, so Woo acquired the footage from a documentary and then intercut his own speedboat scenes in alongside. The addition of a couple of Dragon Boats hired for the shoot made the illusion complete. Woo wanted some of them to flip over, but the riders were superstitious and refused.
13. The body count in The Killer caps out at one hundred and twenty people killed. That number seems low, but I’m taking Logan’s word for it.
14. Logan refers to the signage error — “Scared Heart Hospital” instead of Sacred Heart Hospital — as being the most famous misprint in action film history.
15. Woo was apparently offered the opportunity to direct a film version of Chicago but had to turn it down due to other commitments. His love of musicals is well-documented, so this is a shame.
16. The shootout erupting from Ah’s confrontation with and betrayal by his friend was partly inspired by the end of Taxi Driver (1976).
17. Neighbors in the building where this shootout was filmed called the police for the noise disturbance. The cops did nothing once they arrived, so residents threw glasses down on top of them from their windows and balconies.
18. The “face off” shot with Ah and Insp, Li Ying (Lee) pointing their gun at each other’s face was inspired by Mad Magazine’s Spy vs Spy comic.
19. The commentary was recorded in 2002, and even back then there’s mention of rumored US remakes of the film. He mentions supposed remakes with Denzel Washington & Richard Gere and Michelle Yeoh & Sharon Stone. A Hollywood redo is still currently listed on IMDB.
20. Ah shoots a bad guy’s arm off — it literally separates from his shoulder and falls to the floor — but it was a mistake with the explosive squib. He’s in the next scene with both arms intact.
21. Fat turned down offers to star in Alien: Resurrection (1997) and as Morpheus in The Matrix (1999). He chose The Replacement Killers (1998) and The Corruptor (1999) instead.
22. The scene and subsequent car action where Ah’s partner is killed was partly inspired by The Driver (1978).
23. The film passed British censors unscathed except for a single scene — a brief shot amid a bloody gunfight where Ah stabs a bad guy in the back with a knife — because unlike guns, “people actually have knives in their kitchen.”
24. The Hays Code, the precursor to the MPAA which governed movies in the US up until 1968, initially prohibited the appearance of both shooter and victim in the same frame. Logan credits Hong Kong cinema in part with helping shake up American filmmakers into moving beyond that self-restriction.
25. The bloody injury below Fat’s left eye is real and was caused by a squib during the climactic shootout. Rather than go to the hospital, he suggested they keep filming and use it as part of the illusion.
26. Woo initially wanted the ending to show Jennie heading in for surgery to restore her sight only to have Ying appear beside her, but Yeh couldn’t clear her schedule to make time for filming. Woo instead recycled the shot of Ah looking out his window at his beloved church.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Here’s a Dirty Harry moment.”
“They don’t sit down and having their cheeseburgers say ‘Oh I loved the fierce humanity.'”
“Always very hard to find cars and the space to race them in Hong Kong.”
“The police certainly would have been on the scene by now.”
The Killer remains a stone-cold masterpiece even with some British guy talking all through it. The visuals, imagery, and kinetic nature of the action scenes are all signature Woo and can’t help but delight the senses. Logan’s commentary shows a man well-prepared as he recounts the histories and filmographies of various actors and crew members while also stopping to comment on several on-screen beats. The information and anecdotes aren’t his, but he shares plenty of them all the same making for an entertaining commentary. The biggest lesson from it all is in regard to the idea and act of inspiration — multiple movies have copied Woo and The Killer over the years, but as the commentary suggests, Woo himself was inspired by movies and filmmakers as well.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.