The Killer (1989)
By Matt Stevens
Talking about the plot of this film is pointless. If you do not know and love this film by now, then what the hell is wrong with you?! THE KILLER is one of the greatest action films of all time. Period.

There are numerous VHS, Laserdisc, VCD and DVD versions of this film. I’ll go through them one by one.

VHS: If the transfer is not widescreen, then it is probably an old import and should be avoided like the plague.

Criterion transfer: It was taken from a few different theatrical prints, which were provided by the Hong Kong studio. They refused access to the negative, so the worn prints were the only source that could be used. John Woo supervised the transfer and it is 1.85:1, with decent blacks, but constant print wear and tear. Thankfully, Criterion chose not to DVNR the hell out of it, as that would have resulted in an unstable, processed image with little detail.

Criterion released a CLV and a SE CAV edition. Both have small, easy to read subtitles with a new translation that refers to the main character as “John”, not Jeff. This translation was approved by John Woo. The laserdiscs have the original mono soundtrack.

Criterion released a DVD about three years ago, using the same non-anamorphic widescreen transfer that included most of the extras from the CAV laserdisc, including scenes Woo deleted from his final cut, but showed up in the Taiwan edition, which was released first. The Criterion DVD was decent, but a bit darker than the laserdisc. It had less noise. It is very rare and way overpriced on eBay.

FOX LORBER released a DVD later, using Criterion’s transfer and an older subtitle translation with “Jeff” instead of John. This DVD can be found almost anywhere and while it’s Fox Lorber’s best looking DVD to date, it is not mastered by a top notch company, so larger HDTV’s will show artifacting during some scenes.

MEDIA ASIA released a DVD a couple of years ago and like most of their products, it’s shit. The soundtrack has been badly remixed into a fake Dolby Digital 5.1 that actually sounds far worse than the original mono. The non-anamorphic transfer is from a better source print, but is DVNR’d to hell, showing ghosting, shimmering, motion trails and a lack of detail. It’s just terrible.

Recently, French director and HK film fan Christopher Gans moved his VHS/Laserdisc company to DVD territory and released THE KILLER on a special 2 disc Special Edition. France is a Region 2 PAL area, so the DVD’s cannot be played on U.S. setups, unless you have a Home Theater PC or MALATA type player that converts PAL to NTSC.

Disc 1 features John Woo’s director’s cut in a brand new anamorphic PAL transfer that, while not pristine, is easily the very best version ever created for the home market. A small amount of DVNR has been applied to clear up spots, but thankfully, Gans knows lighter is better. The print used is worn, like the Criterion, but shadow detail is there and color balance is good. The level of detail is somewhat soft compared to U.S. films, but again, this transfer looks much better than anything I have seen before.

UK based HONG KONG LEGENDS could probably produce a cleaner image, through their restoration techniques, but they do not have the rights.

The original mono soundtrack is presented here and not a remix, so Gans gets a thumbs up from me on that. But he was unable to obtain the rights to subtitle the film in English, so this version is, in the end, useless to anyone who does not speak Cantonese.

Extras include interviews and trailers.

Now DISC 2 is where the good news comes in for English speaking folks like me! The longer 131 minute (124 PAL) Taiwanese cut has been transferred from the only surviving 35mm print and is in anamorphic widescreen! Taiwanese prints had English and Chinese subtitles on them, so by removing the optional French subtitles, you can view this longer cut with English subtitles that are, thankfully, much better than most Asian translations, with few spelling disasters and grammar gaffs.

This print was in terrible shape and during reel changes, the print looks like it was run through a washing machine and then a paper shredder. More DVNR is used during the rough spots, but never too much to detract from the image. Despite all the water damage, spots and flaws, the image is very watchable and detailed on my 47” HDTV.

The mono soundtrack from the print is used, so you will hear pops and hiss, but it’s still OK and still sounds better than Media Asia’s pathetic remix. Amazing.

This version of the film is an interesting companion to Woo’s final cut. Almost every scene has slight differences and it is clear that Woo was correct to cut it down. However, many extra bits are fun watch, especially the finale, which has about 10% more action and even different fates to many extras (the bad guys in the church). Music and sound effects are frequently different.

Note: the sequence of Danny Lee’s character rescuing the singer from the thugs (echoing what Jeff/John did for her earlier) and his spotting Jeff/John from the singer’s apartment window is NOT on here. That sequence was deleted from both versions of the film, but presented on the Criterion release as an extra. Many bootlegs have the scene edited into the film.

Extras include promo trailers for other Gans releases, including BLACK MASK, STORMRIDERS, ZU and a gorgeous looking SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW, done in full 2.35:1 widescreen. But, no English subtitles for those releases.

Packaging is a nice gatefold jacket with high quality art and a glossy finish. Very nice.

At $32 from the French, I think fans of THE KILLER will find great value in this release. I am thrilled to have it and can only hope that someone inside the U.S. has the smarts to license the Woo cut Anamorphic transfer from Gans and convert it (properly) into NTSC. Fox Lorber/Winstar owns the rights, so they should do it, if their bankruptcy crap doesn’t get in the way. Fingers crossed.

Film: 4 stars out of 4
Transfer: B+ for Woo’s cut/B- for extended cut (taking into consideration the print’s flaws)
Sound: C+, but an A+ for presenting the original soundtrack without stupid alterations
Extras: B+
Packaging: A+
Value: A-