“Killing’s a helluva thing,” says the eponymous character (Clint Eastwood) in The Outlaw Josey Wales. “You take away everything a man has, and everything he’s gonna have.”
As they are depicted in movies, professional killers – hitmen, mechanics, assets, cleaners; there are many names – can roughly be divided into two types.
There are those who revel in their lethal skills and the bounty it can yield – think Anton Chigurgh (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old Men, who sadistically asks his victims to flip a coin to determine their fate.
And then there are those who are greatly perturbed by the terrible impact of their deadly adroitness.
Jack (George Clooney) in The American is haunted by the innocent lives he’s taken, and a sense that his own days are surely numbered.
Although they usually work alone (accommodating others can have serious consequences for career and well-being), a common trope of the assassin genre is the notion of the guild – that, like printers or jewellers, cold-blooded killers belong to union-like collectives that boast rich histories, mores, and even apprenticeship systems.
Indeed, Assassins Creed and Ninja Assassin both suggest killers have been trained and mentored in hitman schools for centuries.1
Yet the apotheosis of this idea must be John Wick, in which assassins observe a clearly defined set of rules and even have their own currency, which is good for everything from after-deed clean-ups (aka “dinner reservations”), to chi chi hotel accommodation, and (of course) weaponry.
Though the weapon of choice for any pro killer worth his or her salt is a firearm – a rifle for long-distance targets, a pistol for closer work – the mark of a top-drawer assassin is the ability to improvise, to turn anything – a rolled-up magazine, a car door, a piece of luggage, an electrical cord, a curtain rope, even a pen or pencil – into an implement of lethal force and ultimate consequences.
Little did we know that existing alongside our own quotidian world there is another milieu: that of the hired heavy hand, of whom there are legions from which to choose. Yet the crème de la crème is John Wick, a man, we are told, of singular focus, commitment and sheer will. A man who has mastered the tricky art of gun fu, who leaves his marks behind in piles, and whose grief for his recently deceased wife is matched only by his anger at the loss of his car (a ‘69 Mustang, sweet rides being another hitman movie calling card) and dog. Here is the assassin film recalibrated.
The Bourne Identity
Most decent films in this genre portray private contractors at work, exhibiting their elite particular set of skills for a specific price. In this film, we see the government version, in this case physically and cognitively enhanced, and boasting advanced linguistic, tactical, fighting and survival skills. A mystery even to himself, Jason Bourne is also damaged, a victim of the Treadstone program that created him, unleashed him, and now must suffer the consequences as it tries to rein him in.
Leon the Professional
He appears from nowhere, stepping stealthily from the shadows, and has but one rule: “no women, no kids”. On a diet of milk, intense abdominal training and the occasional Hollywood musical, New York’s peripatetic trigger man for the mafia doesn’t know he’s looking for his own family and for roots until he reluctantly opens his door to the last survivor of a bent cop’s (Gary Oldman in a memorable performance) mad, sanguinary free-for-all. A slow-building classic.
In this moody, atmospheric film, there is no escaping “the life” for old-school assassin and gunsmith Jack (George Clooney). Like heist flicks, films centred on hitmen often have at their core a “last job”, one final pay-day before fading off into the dappled light. The trick for these assassin protagonists is in avoiding being the career-ending big score for a rival. Will Jack escape and find love with beautiful whore Clara? And how did the Swedes find him, tucked away there in the Umbrian mountains?
John Wick Chapter 2
Taking place only days after the original, we discover in this arty sequel that the world of the assassins is considerably more substantial than we might have imagined; it has its own (stridently analogue) accounts department; a Roman version of the Intercontinental Hotel; and is headed by the mysterious High Table. As for the titular character, well, he exudes what Esquire writer George Frasier coined “duende” – a combination of charisma, aptitude and panache.
Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) believes in planning; for him, each hit represents an “assignment”, and the method of elimination is only revealed through rigorous study and meticulous preparation. As is inscribed on the pistol of his mentor: amat victoria curum (victory loves preparation.) In this tight remake of Charles Bronson’s signature film, Bishop is pretty good at winging it too, when necessary.
As an ageing contract killer who has lost his nerve, Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is a teary, faltering mess struggling after all this time with his profession’s occupational hazards. He’s also a bit of a jerk – equal parts vain, annoying and self-loathing. Yet just beneath the surface is a charming, urbane soul (and of course, a crack shot). Maybe – just maybe – he and everyman adman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) can help each other out. A neglected little gem, boasting an arresting against-the-tide performance from Brosnan in the early days after his time playing that other suave killer.
La Femme Nikita
Some might argue that the career of iconoclastic director Luc Besson has been more pothole than road. But he had a brilliant idea that formed the genesis of this now (admittedly somewhat aged) classic. What if a teenage criminal was given the choice between a lethal injection or joining an elite unit of French government killers? And what if that teenager was a girl (Besson’s future wife Anne Parillaud) who Besson forced to shoot some scenes 28 times, only to use the first in the final version? Well, add Jean Reno as Victor the Cleaner and Tcheky Karyo as the first of many morally compromised bastards and you’d have yourself a cool (and hugely influential) yarn.
The Day of the Jackal
All that I really recall about this film are the black Citroens, the gun cleverly concealed in crutches, and the brilliant disguises of the titular hero played by Edward Fox. That’s enough, non?
Originally this musing was going to chart the 10 essential assassin films, but I came up one short. Certainly there are plenty of decent flicks to consider: the Kill Bills come readily to mind, The Specialist (exploding tea cups and Rod Steiger chewing scenery anyone?), Assassins (another Stallone vehicle), The Assassin, American Assassin, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Hana, The Equalizer, Ghost Dog, Mr and Mrs Smith, Columbiana, Point Blank, Grosse Pointe Blank, two decent versions of Payback – but none that I felt like watching right now.
I suppose, yes, I could be persuaded otherwise. I mean, let’s not argue about it. There’s no need for violence. Wait, put that down …
- The notion that assassins belong to clans also hints to the word’s origin. “Assassin” with a capital A refers to a member of a secret order of Muslim fanatics who terrorised and killed Crusaders. The name derives from the Arabic word hashshash or “hasish eater” (originally referring to members of an Ismaili sect who took the drug before attacking their enemies).