One of my favorite genres of movie is “two men who are rivals who nonetheless feel a powerful homoerotic connection to each other.” Michael Mann is the reigning champ in this area. I don’t think Heat is ever going to be topped. But John Woo offers some stiff competition with The Killer. This movie really blew my hair back.
The De Niro role here is Chow Yun-Fat as Ah-Jong, a classic killer with a heart of gold. Ah-Jong accidentally blinds an innocent woman during a shootout, and means to make it right by taking one last job to help pay for her cornea transplant. The Pacino is Danny Lee as Li Ying, an icy young detective who becomes instantly enamored with Ah-Jong’s combination of sincere empathy and exacting murder skill. He talks with dreamy longing of the passion he saw in Ah-Jong’s eyes. He’s drawn to this man across the boundary of the law, for reasons he can’t quite explain to himself.
This is what we talk about when we talk about “homoeroticism” in films like this. It’s that ineffable attraction between masculine attributes, the confusing question of “do I want him to do I want to be him?” It’s why Pacino and De Niro hold hands as the latter bleeds out. They want so badly to be together, but they can’t be. One is a cop, one is a criminal. The law dynamic obfuscates the subtextual obstacle here: both of them are men.
So it was a delight to see The Killer take a different road. The two men here actually do team up by the end, forced by circumstance into a partnership neither would openly admit they’d pined for. The smiles on their faces as they headed guns-blazing into the fray together warmed my heart. Who doesn’t love a good pair of murder boyfriends?
The action, of course, is phenomenal. Does it even need to be said? I love Woo’s idea of gunplay, with its focus on constant movement and trigger-pulling. It’s a far cry from the precision and specificity of action in something like John Wick. These guys blast away with reckless abandon, shooting enough bullets to kill their target by law of averages. There’s barely a headshot to be found in the whole film. I especially like the way some actors thrust their arms out as they fire, as if they’re wizards casting a spell rather than shooting a pistol. The whole thing feels heightened and slightly fantastical. It also goes to the more melodramatic tone. These guys don’t just want to kill each other, they want to blast each other to bits. The final kill isn’t a cold point-blank execution, but several chest-shots resulting from a frustrated fury. It’s gunfighting not as a stop along the road to emotional beats, but as the direct expression of those emotions. That’s what truly great action filmmaking looks like.
I adored The Killer. It hits so many buttons for me, from the Mann-ish man love to the expressionistic fighting to one brief moment of Obayashi-style green screen abstraction. It’s a great, great movie. I hope that Woo’s upcoming American remake starring Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t cast a man opposite her. A lesbian version of this movie is like something out of my dream journal.