“The Killer” is a movie I have difficulty placing in the scheme of my developing Asian movie fandom. I first saw it around ninth grade, some 19 or so years ago, somewhere in the glut of re-released and re-edited Jackie Chan titles that began with “Rumble in the Bronx” and ended with “Drunken Master.” It’s never been as omnipresent in my memories as “Hard Boiled.”[ref]Which I hold dear as a piece of spectacle.[/ref] Maybe “The Killer” is not about remembering where you were the first time you saw it, but in being thankful that we grow, change, and understand the complexities of people as we get older. It’s not something my 14-year-old self was ever meant to understand– I was only meant to discover it then so that I could rediscover it later.

This is the first summer in ages where I’ve been thrilled, moved, and introspective in my life more often than not– even with the disappointments. I’ve been learning how to love movies again for the past three months and lately I’ve also learned how to love some old favorites all over again, “The Killer” is a little different– I’m pretty sure I’m learning to love it for the first time.

Chow Yun-Fat stars in “The Killer” as Ah Jong, an assassin who causes irreparable cornea damage to a nightclub singer he’s trying to save during a hit. From this point, he dedicates himself to watching after her and declares that his next job will be his last and then he’ll take Jenny to America for a transplant. However, Jong’s employers refuse to let him quit and they complicate the exit strategy for his latest assignment. They set up an ambush that draws the attention of heroic cop Li (played by Danny Lee) and his partner, Tsang (Kenneth Tsang) who become intrigued by his distinct lack of remorseless killer attributes. Police exposure also increases the necessity of Jong’s termination and his handler (Kong Chu) is tasked with performing the dirty deed.

Soon Tsang realizes Jong may be the nightclub shooter in Jenny’s case. Li plays Tsang’s hunch, hoping to insinuate himself into Jenny’s life for a chance to get close to Jong. What follows throws Li and Tsang directly into Jong’s war with his former employers.

From a purely emotional perspective, John Woo’s “The Killer” is about as potent as they come. The awe that Inspector Li has for a compassionate killer is palpable in the way that he describes him to a sketch artist but also in the bold declarations he makes as they become allies– that he’d like to know his name so that he can tell people he once called him a friend or that given a choice between escape or death, he might choose the latter. By seeing a man who wouldn’t hurt the good or the innocent, Li sees an ally before anything else. It takes him a while to reach the ideal level of certainty, but when he does there’s no better partner for Ah Jong to have.

The two men can also empathize with one another in the loss of elder friends that propels their need for revenge. They both lose the most unquestionably loyal people they’ve ever known. They can see in each other what it is that inspired such loyal elder statesmen, and that further cements their bond. Chu and Tsang as the elder partners are fantastic– they’ve lost some of their step but stay more or less faithful to their youthful progeny. Kong’s character wears his tortured weariness well in numerous scenes, grovelling and painstakingly trying to live down a near betrayal while still being a Triad elder struggling in a world full of mad young men. Both men have reserves of survival instincts that serve them well in pivotal moments– they live long enough to play the hero and give the young men a fighting chance.

From an action standpoint, the film is a fair mixture of blistering shootouts and cat and mouse gamesmanship. The film’s final shootout in a Catholic church is full of white jump-suited men, construction scaffolding, candles extinguished by flying doves (“Peace? There can be no peace.”) and pretty clever usage of a belt full of bullets in an hour of need. The scenes in which Jong and Li stalk around Jenny’s apartment wordlessly holding each other at gunpoint are masterpieces of barely contained tension that also plant the seeds for a future friendship.

In the pantheon of great action films that few people have seen, “The Killer” is at the top of the list. It’s Woo’s masterpiece, so much so that his best American film “Face/Off” borrows shamelessly from it–the doves, the speedboats, the Catholic imagery, the wounded / dead children.  Still, it’s the emotional potency of “The Killer” that will always be its strongest point, it always knows what to say and when to say it– a rare thing for such a tough picture to be so on point with emotions. If you’re looking for a good, popular American analogy you’ll probably be looking at “The Wild Bunch” or “Predator” or “Unforgiven” for stories of men being destroyed by the wilderness in which they came of age.

I’ll leave you with one last thought on “The Killer”: If it’s not the first you ever had, it will be the best you ever had.