Friday, January 11, 2013


Film: Dip Huet Seung Hung (The Killer)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

John Woo is less a director than he is a brand name. There is nothing quite like a John Woo film, with its balletic gun battles, slow motion, and by now almost trite use of doves. Woo’s style is instantly recognizable to many Americans as being similar to that of Quentin Tarantino, which makes perfect sense; a lot of what Tarantino does is informed by Woo’s films. Woo himself is a student of Scorsese, but I think he’s also a student of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. Regardless, Dip Huet Seung Hung (The Killer) is the film that made him on the international scene and the film that established his two-pistol “Gun Fu” style of action as something specifically a trademark of Hong Kong cinema.

An assassin named Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat) performs a hit at the behest of the Triad. During the battle, the muzzle flash of one of his pistols severely damages the eyes of a young singer named Jennie (Sally Yeh). While he wants to leave the life of assassination, Ah Jong realizes that only money will get Jennie a corneal transplant, and since he holds himself responsible for her current affliction, he takes it on himself to perform one last job.

Unfortunately for Ah Jong, the Triad has decided that he’s outlived his usefulness as a hitman, so after the successful assassination in question, they attempt to take him out permanently. During the firefight, a young girl is wounded, and Ah Jong rushes her to the hospital. Here he is confronted by police detective Li Ying (Danny Lee), who now knows the identity of the man behind a collection of recent killings. The rest of the film concerns this odd little triangle. Ah Jong falls for the woman he wounded, Li Ying attempts to capture Ah Jong, but is impressed with the man’s evident compassion, and Jennie sits in the middle. Meanwhile, the Triad attempts to kill everyone involved both on principle and to avoid paying Ah Jong what they owe him.

So let’s talk about what really matters here: the action. Any film like this, that runs that a couple of hundred miles per hour does need to slow down at times, but Woo keeps the action running hot and fast with a body count that rivals anything on the market, including war epics. The comparisons to directors like Peckinpah are almost too obvious to be worth mentioning, with the slow motion ballet of the firefight and the fountaining sprays of blood. There is a sense of the choreography of these battles being as carefully choreographed as any martial arts film, with stunts that certainly defy the laws of physics happening at regular intervals. And so what? It’s what we expect in a film like this, nay even demand of it. We want to see almost supernatural killers doing their thing.

Woo may or may not be the director who came up with the two-gun style of gunfighting in films like this one, but he is very much the man who popularized it to the point where it is entirely associated with him. Anyone using two pistols, particularly when jumping or diving, is paying homage to Woo. There’s a lot of that here, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t wildly fun to watch.

The melodrama is pretty high in this one, though. The reveal to Jennie that Ah Jong is actually the killer who blinded her is missing only a massive minor chord played on an organ to really complete the feel. Jennie is also remarkably high strung and kind of stupid. The scene in her apartment where Li and Ah Jong confront each other would be filled with a brilliant comic and deadly tension if not for her. To my mind, she’s easily the weakest link in the film. If she were a stronger character, I admit that Ah Jong’s pity for her would be less critical as his motivating influence, but she would also play stronger as the femme fatale that this film really needs.

It needs that because below all of the gun ballet and the melodrama, Dip Huet Seung Hung is really a modern film noir, complete with high-paid, skilled assassin agreeing to one final job (and thus a doomed job) before getting out of the business for good. Chow yun-Fat plays the role perfectly, an intense combination of ruthless killer and soft-hearted Samaritan. He’s an easy actor and an easy character to like.

Really, though, the sell here is the fight sequences, which are as good as anything else in the Hong Kong action spectrum. These, but most especially the climactic scene complete with the slow motion fluttering of doves, are more than worth the price of admission here. It’s hyperviolent to be sure, but anyone expecting something different from John Woo has only him- or herelf to blame.

Why to watch Dip Huet Seung Hung: Everyone should see at least one John Woo film.
Why not to watch: It strains believability.


  1. I liked this one, but 'strains believability' is putting it mildly. If you buy into the fantasy and forget reality, though, it's a helluva ride. Why am I still awake? I was working way too late tonight and have to go to sleep. Night!

  2. I don't think it strains believability half as much as some of his other films (cf. the premise of Face/Off). Probably my favourite action film of all time; I just wish the Dragon Dynasty DVD were less lame in quality.

  3. Most action movies go places that reality does not. I try not to judge them on that metric as much as possible, because I kind of want that when I'm watching. How much less entertaining would they be if everything conformed to the laws of physics?

  4. Ah yes, the two gun thing. My favorite reference to that was in the movie Hot Fuzz. Nick Frost's country cop excitedly quizzes big city supercop Simon Pegg, "Have you ever fired both guns whilst diving through the air?" Pegg answers no, but of course it does end up happening later in the film.

    I have to say that I am kind of amused by your comments that the lack of reality in action films should be ignored as much as possible, when that seems to be the biggest knock I've read against musicals - their lack of reality.

    Personally, I lump both genres together, along with comedies, too, and just don't worry too much about how realistic they are. I just look to be entertained. And I was entertained by The Killer.

    For what it's worth: when I saw your title of "Gun Fu" my first thought was "Equilibrium is on the 1,001 Movies list?" "Gun Fu" is how I've referred to that movie since I first saw it. If you haven't seen it yourself, it features a pre-Batman Christian Bale as a highly-trained assassin who uses a technique that can only be described as combining martial arts with gun use. Here is a great example of it (note - only watch for the first 45 seconds until fight ends otherwise you might see a spoiler):

    1. Am I contradicting myself by being bothered by the non-reality of musicals, but not the non-reality of action films? To quote Walt Whitman, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

      Seriously, though, I don't think it is a contradiction or a rationalization. My issue with musicals is not specifically the break from reality (because then I'd hate science fiction, fantasy, and horror), but the break with verisimilitude. Action films don't have that specific problem, and over and over again, the musicals that I generally like are those that work the musical numbers into the story in a more logical and seamless fashion.

      Additionally, so many musicals come from a time and place that was specifically sexist, where women were treated as objects, and I object strongly to that attitude. It's a little more complex than just non-realism. Action movies, I admit, are sexist in their own way, and I tend to object to that, too.

    2. Because a car flipping over 17 times and the occupants crawling out unharmed just has "verisimilitude" written all over it. :-)

      Have you ever considered a run for political office? You'd be great at answering the Press' questions.

    3. Nah--they fit the verisimilitude of the world they present. Musicals that do the same I tend to like better (see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for an example).

      But, even if I liked the music and dancing and spectacle of a typical musical (say, Guys and Dolls), I can't get past the women-as-object mentality that many of them have.

      Anyway, I'm unelectable in the current climate of American politics.

  5. I agree about the melodrama. It's just too much for me in this film. I've watched a handful of Woo films and this one ranks pretty low just because of how overbearing the story becomes.

    I much prefer Hard Boiled, Once a Thief, Face/Off and even Hard Target to this film.

    1. I can see that. I don't agree with you that it's too far that way, but I see where you get there.