Even if you've never seen director John Woo's hyperkinetic action ballet The Killer, there's a good chance you're already familiar with a good bit of it. It is widely considered to be the peak of a genre that influenced a generation of American filmmakers (notably Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez) and gave the action genre something it has rarely had: respectability.

Writer/director Woo was at the forefront of the Hong Kong action genre in the late 80s and early 90s; the period saw the release of A Better Tomorrow(1986), Hard Boiled(1992), and The Killer, Woo's triumverate of poetic bloodshed.

The plot of The Killer is boilerplate: it tells the story of John(or Jeffery, depending on the version of the film) Chow, an assassin trying to go straight who takes on one last job (although his motivation, to help a woman he accidentally blinded, is somewhat unusual). The film explores standard Woo themes of loyalty, friendship, and redemption, on both sides of the law.

The film stars Woo regular Chow Yun-Fat, a longtime megastar in Asia who may, for the first time, have discovered a mainstream American audience with the release of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Great thematic weight is placed on Yun-Fat's shoulders in The Killer and his performance drives the film.

But The Killer is most notable for its meticulously crafted action scenes. Its pioneering blend of slow motion and blindingly fast gunplay has been often imitated in the decade since its release -- Matrix-savy viewers may experience distinct deja vu -- but the level of care John Woo takes still sets The Killer apart. Woo has said that he goes into each scene with the events already edited in his head, knowing exactly which bits will be played in slow motion. In fact, he watches his actors and chooses a specific slow motion "signature", a certain film speed, for each of them, in order to highlight each actor's strengths.

The Killer is, as many have pointed out, unflinchingly violent. But it is also, Woo has said, an attempt to elevate that violence to something greater than simple killing-for-the-sake-of-killing. The fluttering birds, which have since become a trademark of John Woo, appear for the first time in this film. Troubled by so many deaths going unremarked, Woo explains that the birds represent, for him, the departure of so many troubled souls.

The Killer (Die Xue Shuang Xiong)(Cantonese; subtitled)
"One Vicious Hitman. One Fierce Cop. Ten Thousand Bullets."

Cast (top billing only):
Chow Yun-Fat  ... John(Jeffery) Chow
Danny Lee        ... Inspector Li
Sally Yeh           ... Jennie
Chu Kong         ... Sydney