This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Andrew Buckley’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
The Killer is generally considered one of John Woo's most influential & iconic efforts, and, after rewatching it recently, it isn't hard to see why; in addition to its incredibly bloody & kinetic action scenes, the whole affair (literally) bleeds style, as doves fly, sunglasses are worn indoors, and about half of it seems to play out in that beautifully violent slow motion that is such a signature of Woo's. If I were to rate it purely based on its action & direction, it would get a perfect score, easy. However, action movie or not, the plot, themes, and dialogue all still factor into my overall appraisal of the film, and, like pretty much everything else this director has done, the writing side of The Killer can hardly said to be revelatory. Still, for how inconsistent he is at the "tell" side of storytelling, Woo is definitely better at the "show", resulting in a film that, despite its flaws, is nonetheless still my favorite of his to date, and one of the most influential action movies of the past 25+ years, easy.
The Killer achieves all of this by being a more personal, drama-focused action movie than most, due to the torturous relationships between Jeffrey, the film's titual hitman, and Sydney, his Triad manager, the tragic romance that blossoms between Jeffrey and Jenny, the innocent nightclub singer he accidentally blinds at the onset of the film, and of course, the often uneasy, unlikely friendship that develops between the killer and the policeman Inspector Li. The two of them grow to admire the honorable natures they have in common, and go to war with the mob boss who's literally gunning for them, taking on his veritable army of thugs in some of the biggest, bloodiest shootouts in the history of cinema. The (admittedly) melodramatic emotional atmosphere within The Killer helps to keep all the action from just feeling like mindless, empty slaughter, and allows the somewhat generic "cops 'n crooks" elements of the plot, the somewhat familiar themes and just passable dialogue, and the general lack of subtlety to matter less in the overall scheme of things, in light of all the things that the film gets right.
Besides the dramatic elements, The Killer also has a rather bombastic, memorable visual style, whether it be the copious amount of over the top religious symbolism, the soft, vaseline-on-the-camera-lens lighting, or the slow motion moments that have a surreal, dreamlike feel when used outside of the action, but take on a brutally beautiful tone during the endless shootouts, stretching out the bloodletting in a way that never feels gratuitous, but rather, help us better appreciate just how much a master of action Woo was when he was at his peak. Pretty much nothing in this movie could be called low-key at all, and in another film, any one element from this would just seem absurd, but in The Killer, the consistently heightened, operatic nature of the whole affair just elevates it, and make it a pretty darn exciting, engaging, and important chapter in action movie history in the end.