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The Playlist's Guide To Assassins In The Movies

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 8, 2011 at 4:45AM

We often don’t know where they come from, their real names or even why they do what they do. Yet, as an audience, we are frequently enamored with the glossy thrill of power offered to a hitman, a silent assassin disappearing into the night. Why hitmen have been such a genre staple isn’t hard to see - you put a gun into the hand of a major character, and boom! drama. The idea of a hired gun, someone whose line of work involves ending human lives without passion or emotion, is naturally fraught with tension and emotional weight.

"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+]

This article is related to: Films, Feature, Hanna, Features, Saoirse Ronan

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