Many words could be used to describe the work of action-movie master John Woo. Subtle is not one of them.
In " The Killer" —one of the director's most revered films, released Tuesday on DVD ($25) and Blu-ray ($30) via a new, two-disc ultimate edition from distributor Dragon Dynasty — Woo tosses aside all sense of restraint to tell the story of an assassin (Chow Yun-Fat) seeking redemption even as he continues to riddle many, many bodies with a never-ending spray of bullets. Originally released in 1989 and out of print on DVD until this latest version got the go-ahead, it brims with spattered blood, balletic gun battles and gangsters who pack heat in both hands. In other words, it's a must-see for anyone who considers himself a fan of the action genre, and a must-see-again for those who haven't revisited the Hong Kong heart-stopper in a few years.
Yun-Fat, who firmly establishes himself here as a compelling man of mystery and a major movie star, plays Ah Jong, a member of the Chinese mafia who seeks sanctuary in candle-lit chapels and the lilting voice of a torch singer named Jennie. Like so many cinematic hit men, he's determined to do one last dirty job, then get out of the business. But after Jennie gets caught in the crossfire during one of the movie's ludicrously over-the-top shootouts and is nearly rendered blind, Ah Jong becomes fixated on restoring her sight and avoiding capture by a cop (Danny Lee) who shares more in common with the professional murderer than he realizes.
All right, so the plot doesn't exactly break new crime-story ground. It's all the Woo flourishes — the Woo-isms, if you will — that elevates "The Killer" to another level. From the preponderance of white doves to the whip-crackingly quick yet simultaneously elegant action sequences, the director establishes all the elements in what would ultimately become his signature style, a style, it must be said, that never conveyed quite as effectively once Woo went Hollywood and made movies such as "Mission: Impossible 2." (Doves and Tom Cruise definitely do not mix.) But in "The Killer," even when Woo pushes the violence a little too far or revels in one too many slo-mo montages, it all somehow works.
While the folks at Dragon Dynasty deserve praise for making "The Killer" widely available again, they don't earn major raves for the DVD itself. The visual quality of the transfer, at least in the standard DVD format, doesn't have the pristine sheen consumers have come to expect from contemporary releases. And the extras — which include five deleted scenes, a trio of interviews with Woo and a featurette on the real Hong Kong locations used in the movie — are just so-so. In fact, the fuzzy audio on one of the interviews, recorded during an American Cinematheque tribute to Woo in 2002, makes understanding the already prone-to-mumble Woo unnecessarily challenging.
Fans undoubtedly would rather see a documentary in which the current filmmakers influenced by Woo — and certainly there are many — could talk about "The Killer's" significance. A commentary track, something that appeared on both previous iterations of "The Killer," also would have been a nice addition given that this release defines itself as an "ultimate edition."
Bottom line: Check out "The Killer" to experience all the unbridled destruction and fluttering doves. Just don't expect the rest of the DVD to impress as much as the movie does.