When it was announced that Supreme was releasing a collaboration with legendary Chinese director, John Woo, its decision to use his 1989 film, The Killer, seemed like a logical choice given the brand’s track record of turning to cinema for inspiration over the years.
As a result of Supreme’s fascination with Hollywood, we’ve gotten notable collaborations with people like Woody Allen and Charle Chaplin, brands like Disney, and films like The Wizard of Oz, Taxi Driver, E.T., Goodfellas, Kids, and Scarface.
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Brian De Palma’s Scarface are particularly important when unpacking why Supreme may have been interested in paying homage to Woo’s Hong Kong-set epic.
United underneath the “gangster” genre, both films shined a light on the criminal underbelly in a way that was new to audiences. Despite the worlds being populated by morally bankrupt people like Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy in Goodfellas and Tony, Manolo, Frank, and Sosa in Scarface, the lines were blurred between good and evil. No longer were the heroes free of sin. Similarly, the so-called “bad guys” had redeemable human traits.
Whereas the mystique of La Cosa Nostra has been embedded in American culture since the days of Capone, Lansky, Siegel, and Gotti, John Woo’s The Killer gave an international spin to a gangster’s exploits which bucked tired clichés about Asian culture—where men were often portrayed as being docile—and if they had any fighting spirit, it was only shown through martial arts. Woo’s “bullet ballet” films blended both worlds in a new way, fusing the hard-boiled realism of Scorsese’s gangland epics with the artful gymnastics of kung fu cinema.
In The Killer, Chow Yun-Fat’s Ah Jong is portrayed as a suave, cool, and calculated leading man during an era when American audiences were witnessing Asian representation in the form of cheap, racist jokes in Gung Ho and as Chinese mystics in Big Trouble in Little China. In turn, Ah Jong’s characterization afforded actual complexity.
Woo tells the audience: “He looks determined without being ruthless. There’s something heroic about him. He doesn’t look like a killer. He comes across so calm… acts like he has a dream… eyes full of passion.” This bit was actually sampled by RZA on Raekwon’s “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” and in a fitting closing of a circle, RZA is the one who interviews Woo about this collab for Supreme.
The Killer achieved something in Asian cinema that Scarface had attained previously, and Goodfellas would later solidify; it’s more fun to root for the bad guy if he feels like a real person. These truths were unpacked through Tony Montana’s greed, Henry Hill’s friendships, and Ah Jong’s love for Jennie.
“When I made The Killer, it was a tribute to all those great gangster films I had admired,” Woo tells RZA. “It’s about a man with a great heart, but also [a hitman]. He’s my kind of hero.”
Thematically, The Killer, Goodfellas, and Scarface are meditations on characters following codes in worlds that are seemingly absent of rules. Scorsese constantly reminds us, “never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut,” De Palma tells us, “The only thing I got in this world is my balls and my word and I don’t break ’em for nobody,” and Woo illustrates, “very few people still believe in the old ways.”
Supreme has earned a reputation in the industry of playing by their own rules. They’re notoriously media adverse, seek out unlikely partnerships, and leave “supply and demand” to resellers. As a result, they’re derided by some for being prickly and elusive, while simultaneously applauded by others for creating a brand that everyone wants to work with.
The brand was created in 1994 during a time when the world was becoming more accustomed to watching morally questionable characters on screen.
Supreme founder, James Jebbia, describes the early days of the brand in a New York Times interview, saying: “People would buy stuff and get robbed afterward,” and further illustrated a cultivated aesthetic where its consumers were perceived one way (“scruffy” in Jebbia’s own words), but actually much more refined upon closer examination. Essentially, Supreme perceives both itself and their consumers as complex entities who are often typecast.
In describing the collaboration, RZA states, “We got a piece of art [The Killer] — it will be 30 years old — and it’s still as good as something that came out yesterday.”
Supreme’s intentions have never been to be the biggest or most relevant brand in the world. Rather, it sees the strength in playing a calculated long game which ages as gracefully as the film’s they’ve honored in the past.
Far from perfect and lauded for its character flaws, Supreme and The Killer set a new precedent for synergy amongst collaborators.
Now take a full look at the Supreme x John Woo collaboration.