Every sovereign needs that one ultra reliable and supremely talented servant who can be called upon in desperate times. For the Dowager Empress of the Qing Empire, that man is Leng Tien-Ying – otherwise known as the Killer Constable. When a sizeable amount of gold goes missing from the Imperial Vaults, it’s Leng they call to try and get it back. However, what Leng doesn’t know is that there’s far more going on here than he could possibly have imagined and he’s about to wade into a trap so deep that you never even see the bottom.
At several points, the giant broadsword style weapon that Leng carries catches the light and appears to shine out with some kind of ethereal righteousness, yet if Leng wields the shining sword of justice he does so with a heart of ice. Early on one of his most trusted subordinates argues with him and says he intends to leave because he thinks Leng is more killer than policeman. He doesn’t take prisoners, where there’s reasonable proof of guilt he cuts the perpetrator down on the spot. At one point he tortures a suspect for information by mock drowning him in a lake while his wife and terrified children look on. When the wife complains, he hits her causing the husband to make the mistake of going for Leng which earns him the prize of getting his head cut off right in front of his family who are now left without any means of supporting themselves.
Leng cares only about the letter of the law. As the squad of policemen ride through the barren landscape, they pass through ruined towns filled with the starving and the desperate. One of the more compassionate men asks what’s happened here and if they, as policemen, shouldn’t be trying to help, but is reminded that these poor people are Hans and the policemen are Manchurians, so it’s just none of their business whether they live or die.
However, here is where Kuei’s film deviates from the accepted path. Leng’s generally bleak attitude to life is the one the film most closely identifies with. Any attempt at compassion is met with by betrayal, each act of kindness only earns retribution and being softhearted is almost another word for dying young. That is not to say the film is completely behind Leng as a hero or even as an anti-hero, he too will pay for the way he lives his life starting with realising that he alone is responsible for the deaths of the men that blindly followed him on a fruitless quest.
Killer Constable is more of a swordplay film than a kung-fu one and is filled with plenty of energetic and expertly choreographed fight sequences. The men fight in blazing heat (at one time literally), pouring rain and mud filled swamps against a suspiciously well trained gang of opponents who always seem to be lying in wait for them. The Killer Constable also seems to have something of a fetish for chopping off people’s legs which carries on right into the bloody finale with limbs flying off with oddly gleeful abandon.
As it turns out, the Killer Constable is not completely heartless, he’s just lived in this harsh world long enough to come to the opinion that the “bad” cannot be redeemed and need to be cut down like weeds so that the flowers can once again bloom. However, he, in his quest, has crossed the line and become that which he most hates. To nearly everyone else in the picture, Leng is a bad guy – the uncompromising face of the law and the knock at the door you most fear coming. In the film’s surprisingly downbeat ending he too will get what’s coming to him.
Bleak beyond measure, the only good and true thing in the cruel wold of Killer Constable is the blind daughter of one of the criminals. Kind and cheerful, she tries to help Leng as he lies wounded and is entrusted to him should her father die, yet she pays the heaviest price of all, left standing all alone in the rain waiting for the return of those who will never come home again. Far from heroic, Killer Constable is a critique of blind justice dealt out by self righteous egoists who will always discover the error of their ways far too late.
Seen as part of HOME’s CRIME: Hong Kong Style touring season.