Welcome to the Node Your Homework program. Tonight's feature presentation is John Woo's The Killer - An Analysis and is sponsored by the course Popular Culture and the Media. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show!

Warning: Major spoilers ahead!


In 1989, John Woo's film The Killer (Die Xue Shuang Xiong) opened in Hong Kong to rave reviews and immediate box-office success. Word of mouth regarding the ultra-violent story of a professional killer and the detective who chases him soon passed around the world to audiences in North America. Soon enough, The Killer opened up in selected art-house cinemas and was rewarded with packed houses and similarly enthusiastic reviews.

To date, The Killer is still regarded as the most popular Cantonese-language film in the world and was certainly responsible for opening up the eyes of North American audiences to the pulp films that had been so prevalent in Hong Kong.i With a single film, John Woo had created for himself his own genre, so much so that virtually every film he has made after The Killer has not only been revered as top-notch action but a "true John Woo" flick, to be analyzed and imitated by countless others.

What is it about the "John Woo genre" that fascinates audiences worldwide? This paper intends to disseminate the atypical John Woo film (which, in this case, would of course be The Killer) and analyze it from different perspectives: literary and psychological/sociological. We will look at such particulars as the dominant theme throughout the film and the audience that it aims to appease and/or provoke.

Literary Analysis

The story and screenplay for The Killer was written entirely by Mr. Woo and took thematic elements that he had approached in his earlier films (A Better Tomorrow, A Better Tomorrow II). Such elements included the following:

  • Brotherhood
  • The film starts off with what appears to be a close friendship between Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat), the professional hitman, and Sydney (Kong Chu), his arranger. They meet at a church whereby they start a discussion on Jeff's spiritual beliefs. Sydney then passes the hit package to Jeff, who inspects the target and the armoury. Sydney then asks Jeff if he is going to check the guns to ensure that they're okay. Jeff replies, "No, I trust you."

    This trust continues throughout the film but reaches its nadir after the first quarter of the film when Jeff realizes that Sydney has betrayed him to one of his contractors who is looking to kill him. However, instead of killing his betrayer (which would generally be expected in most other films of this nature), Jeff spares Sydney's life and goes into hiding.

    The brotherhood theme, however, doesn't stop there. In fact, it goes off into two different areas. Inspector Li (Danny Lee), who is on the case of tracking the killer, has come to find a certain respect for Jeff's sense of morality and ideals. Having witnessed Jeff save a child from crossfire between a troop of killers and himself, as well as discovering that he is assisting a woman (Jenny, played by Sally Yeh) blinded by him in an assignment that he was involved in, Li begins to build a level of admiration for the murderer, even as he is bound by duty to capture him.

    Pretty soon, Li and Jeff end up joining forces to do battle with the group that is looking to kill the latter. They even come up with nicknames for each other, with Jeff being referred to as "Butt-head" and Li as "Numb-Nuts", and Li makes a promise to Jeff to save Jenny should the latter not make it alive.

    The theme of brotherhood also flows down the second path with Sydney overwhelmed with remorse in his betrayal of Jeff. To atone for his wrongdoing, he decides to take it upon himself to get the money that was originally promised to Jeff for the assignment. When Jeff realizes that Sydney is going to do this, he confronts him and tells him that the money isn't important "but our friendship is". However, due to his need for atonement, Sydney leaves anyway and is forced to endure humiliation and torture at the hands of the contractor and his henchmen. Sydney is successful in getting the money but is eventually gunned down at the hideout where he is to meet Jeff. Asking his "brother-in-crime" to honour him, Sydney asks Jeff to kill him as he would rather die honourably than "as a dog".

  • Hero/Anti-Hero: Flip Sides of the Same Coin
  • Throughout the film, it becomes rather apparent that the heroes are difficult to determine. Indeed, with Jeff being a professional killer, one has to wonder how the character could be viewed as a hero as murder is his profession and that is obviously wrong in our society. On the other hand, Li may be a representative of the law but he is also prone to violence, having taken part in a wild shootout throughout the streets with several gunrunners earlier in the film. However, it becomes more and more obvious that the only difference between Jeff and Li, who is law-abiding, is the thin line drawn between the two of them by the law.

    Both are very intense individuals and committed to their professions (even though Jeff wants to leave his, he still accomplishes the task when asked to do so). Their own bosses have betrayed both - Jeff by his contractor and Li by his division boss. Finally, both are also bound by a code of honour which each intends to respect to the very end.

  • Code of Honour
  • So what is this code of honour that I've mentioned earlier? In the film, Jeff, Sydney, and Li make reference to it on several occasions. In a scene where Jeff and Sydney share a contemplative moment, Sydney tells Jeff that the modern world simply doesn't respect such a code of honour between individuals anymore, that all they see is two killers and nothing more. This became all the more obvious in the film's dark ending.

    Li also mentions it during an argument with his division boss as well as during a discussion with Jeff at his church hideout.

    This code of honour theme is similar to that which can be found in samurai films, where such a code meant much more than anything else in the world. In a sense, the two main characters of Jeff and Li can, therefore, be referred to as ronin (masterless samurai) who, although without master, are still bound by honour - another shared quality between the two individuals.ii

    The differences between the theme of brotherhood and the theme of honour may seem rather blurred as both would seem to focus on tight relationships between individuals. However, the true difference is that the film places a focus on brotherhood/bonding out of a shared situation between Jeff and Li. The theme of honour centers around a core set of "rules" that define a common ground between individuals of a shared profession.

Psychological/Sociological Analysis

It has been said time and again that action films are generally "no-brainers", that it is a genre that caters to the simple-minded who like explosions and non-stop violence. The audience is usually male-dominant, the story is usually expected to be a simple good versus evil type, and the resolution of the whole film is usually swift justice (ie. death/destruction) to those who have committed wrong. I'll be the first to admit that I had first approached the film with the same mindset (keeping in mind that I was 15 years old at the time).

The Killer, however, turned those tables around with its in-depth look into the themes mentioned in the previous section, as well as its dark ending. While there are plenty of explosions, blazing guns, and death, there are also equally as many scenes of quiet introspection and intense emotions, something which had not been seen in most action films up to that date. In a sense, The Killer is almost like a Scorsese film - raw violence with strong emotional undercurrents - with the difference being that Scorsese has never fashioned himself to be an action director.iii

Audiences, however, ate it up completely as The Killer represented to them a new-wave in the action genre, one which placed as much emphasis on emotional themes as it did on the expected battles. Not only did the film cater to the typical action film audience (ie. the simple minded male - "ooh, big explosions!"), but also to the non-typical audience looking for more dramatic qualities (ie. literary males and females - "Intense emotional impact!"). Even esteemed film historian Leonard Maltin, known for being scarce in praises for modern pulp film, gives high marks for the film, acknowledging that the "pulp melodrama achieves near-operatic grandeur, thanks to multi-leveled characterizations and story".iv


As you can see, The Killer was truly a unique type of film that redefined the whole action genre. Because of this, for today's action film to achieve success and a modicum of respect, it must present itself on more levels than the simple act and theme of violence and must endeavour to account for the emotional scale involved and the characterizations of those that are drawn in. Hence, with The Killer, John Woo has created a whole new era in action films that many others have since followed and will continue to follow.v

i. Fredric Dannen, Hong Kong Babylon: An Insider's Guide to the Hollywood of the East, Miramax Books, 1997, p. 38
ii. Mike Bracken, John Woo's The Killer (Review), Epinions.com, 2000, (http://horrorfilm.epinions.com/mvie-review-5F95-91EC7FE-38DFF3EB-prod4)
iii. Dannen, Hong Kong Babylon (Review by Tony Rayns, film critic), p. 390
iv. Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide 2000, Signet, 1999, p. 624
v. On an interesting note, Columbia Tri-Star has optioned The Killer for development into a Hollywood film. To date, only a screenplay has been written (by Brian DePalma, known as an "homage" director) but production has yet to start.

Mark: 86% ("Thesis needed to be stronger")