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The Playlist's Guide To Assassins In The Movies

by The Playlist Staff
April 8, 2011 4:45 AM
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"Collateral" (2004)
In a colorful marquee career, one can make the case that Tom Cruise has never been scarier or more complex as Vincent, the grey-haired hitman at the center of one of Michael Mann’s typically lonely L.A. nights. Calm to the core, the silver-maned killer has commandeered taxi driver Jamie Foxx for the evening, forming a queasy, tense relationship between them where their fates are intertwined - Foxx fears for his life, while Cruise plays his killer as a man with an unspoken, borderline desperate motivation to meet a death quota. Not quite top-class Mann, "Collateral" unfortunately ends in a foot chase that seems overly conventional for the talky, moody thriller that preceded these events, but it’s the sort of genre gamble that Mann can perform in his sleep, providing a crowd-pleasing caper to an intense chess match of character study. [A-]

"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (2002)
When Chuck Barris became the bad taste baron of tacky sixties and seventies game shows, his public reputation was as an opportunistic dim bulb who found his niche and exploited it to the fullest. What George Clooney's directorial debut supposes is that Barris was actually overachieving, his schlocky public persona a cover for his exploits as a CIA hitman. Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman take their cues from Barris’ straight-faced memoirs, depicting a shadowy, back-stabbing world of back-alley dealings and often fatal interactions with ill-advised lovers, while also finding room for all the CIA spy stuff (rimshot!). Within the film, which is nonetheless a love letter to the era in television, filled with practical effects, flimsy scene transitions and a muted color scheme, there is not only a typically brilliant, nuanced turn from Sam Rockwell as Barris, but also a tragic candle-wick characterization from Rutger Hauer playing a killer in his last days on the job. [A]

Fallen Angels" (1995)
Seen as a companion piece to the probably-perfect "Chungking Express," Wong Kar-Wai's fifth film is less immediate and therefore less beloved, even if some of its moments (such as the mute/father/video-tape sequence) are just as heart-wrenching. "Fallen Angels" shares a two-story plot with its sister, however here the director intercuts them as opposed to closing one before beginning another. What doesn't help is that both stories are radically different- one a drama about a for-hire assassin, the other a more comedic-tale of a petty criminal - and first time viewing can be rather chaotic and jarring given the varying tones going in and out. Reflection and subsequent watches eliminate any confusion or irritation and reveal hefty substance, with the "hitman" story starring Leon Lai ("3 Extremes II") standing out most. This story follows a killer and his book-keeping partner, a female that sets up his murders and cleans the scene after the deed is done. Despite never meeting each other, they lead an unconventional romantic relationship, one that fizzes into ugliness when the killer breaks off their ties via jukebox song. Sounds like your typical quirkiness from Wong Kar-Wai, but most of the cuteness is saved for the other narrative. Instead, he uses the story as an opportunity to play Mellville (long, quiet stretches of him either post-kill or approaching the kill) and craft quick, gritty shoot-outs no one knew he was capable of doing. Long time collaborator Doyle shines brightest in this segment too, switching film stocks and speeds in an unpredictable fashion that somehow doesn't feel random, but wild. Wong has only been this on-the-surface cool in "As Tears Go By," which wasn't bad by any means but definitely hampered by an excess of sentimentality. Maybe this one's a bit colder, but the topic of yearning and criticisms of indecisiveness tug on the heart's strings just as hard, only without the mawkish grabs. [B+]

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" (1999)
Arguably Jim Jarmusch's most commercial film, but certainly not his only dip into the crime genre to date, "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" is an odd blend. Following Forest Whitaker as a hitman in the employ of the Jersey mob, who follows the Hagakure (the samurai code), it's a conscious nod to Melville's classic "Le Samourai," but brings all kinds of added elements into the mix -- Kurosawa, philosophy, hip-hop (thanks to the outstanding soundtrack by Wu-Tang Clan member RZA) and even cartoons -- Felix The Cat, Betty Boo and Woody Woodpecker all crop up, while the mother of Pearline, the young girl that Ghost Dog befriends, is shot only from the waist down, in a manner reminiscent of Mammy Two Shoes from the "Tom & Jerry" cartoons. As you might expect from Jarmusch, it's a thoughtful, at times almost spiritual, picture (mostly thanks to Whitaker's typically soulful lead performance, and excellent support from John Tormey as his 'master,' Louie. What's more surprising is how well the director handles the action -- the final set-piece in particular is close to thrilling. A deserving cult classic, even if it doesn't hold up to the very best of Jarmusch's output. [B+]

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  • Stephen M | April 10, 2011 5:18 AMReply

    I love that Fallen Angels, Grosse Point Blank, and The Killer are on here. They're all favorites.

    I can't agree with the assessment of Road to Perdition, though. It looks great, and the seeds of greatness are there, but it just never goes beyond the surface level to become really morally complex. If it had been made in the seventies by someone like Scorsese or DePalma or Coppola, it would have been a disturbing, intimate masterpiece. Instead it just feels too slick.

  • Christopher Bell | April 9, 2011 11:24 AMReply

    Ugh, good call on that Ashes and Diamonds. Saw that about five years ago.

  • simon | April 9, 2011 7:54 AMReply

    No "Killing of a Chinese Bookie"?

  • Mr. Arkadin from The Assassination Bureau | April 9, 2011 7:33 AMReply

    Essentially there are tons of great assassination/hitman-themed films (in all kinds of genres). Many of them more worthwhile of a description or mentioning than the lackluster "The Matador" (from "[b]A[/b]shes and Diamonds" to "[b]Z[/b]ero Woman: Red Handcuffs"). But one unknown jewel in particular should be pointed out:

    "The Age of Assassins" (aka Epoch of Murder Madness) by the brilliant and to western audiences unfortunately underrepresented Okamoto (mostly famed for "Samurai Assassin", "Sword of Doom" & "Kill!", but actually possesses a very impressive body of work, that is just waiting to be rediscovered). It's a satirical tour de force on the japanese pulp /noir / action cinema wave. Style-wise it's on par with Suzuki's "Branded to Kill" (both 1967 btw), but manages to take an even crazier route. It's the total blow your mind masterpiece package (King Nakadai and the hole shabang). It doesn't have an official english friendly release (yet), but it's out there...

    also... the likes of Lee Marvin (Prime Cut), Richard Conte (NY Confidential), James Coburn (Hard Contract), Gian Maria Volonté (Bullet for the General) or Anthony Dawson (Deadlock) would easily make the pussy-hitmans in this list (~1995 on up) shit their panties...

  • Juniper | April 9, 2011 6:48 AMReply

    Fulltime killer and Bittersweet life.

  • Higgs Boson | April 8, 2011 12:26 PMReply

    No Country for Old Men should be here ... Bardem is truly compelling as a hit man.

  • Helgi | April 8, 2011 9:44 AMReply

    Judging from your list MUNICH takes the cake. A pretty good list.

  • Edward Davis | April 8, 2011 8:25 AMReply

    Maybe i need re-see Confessions again, but the first time I saw it I thought it was really mediocre.

  • Alejandro Then | April 8, 2011 8:25 AMReply

    This is great stuff you guys.
    More than a few here that I've never heard of!


    (hope it's especially helpful to my own assassin -
    hitman movie.)

  • rotch | April 8, 2011 8:23 AMReply

    nice to see Confessions of a Dangerous Mind get some well earned love!

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