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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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Grosse Point Blank" (1997)
Some films you know are going to be terrific. You put great actors, director and writer on a project together, and it's a good bet that the film will turn out well. But some films are greater than the sum of their parts, and one such example is "Grosse Point Blank," a film where virtually no-one involved has made anything even half as good since. John Cusack gives perhaps the seminal Cusackian performance as hitmen Martin Blank, who due to an unfortunate work commitment, ends up returning to his home, the Detroit suburb of Grosse Point, on the weekend of his ten-year high school reunion, and reconnects with Debbie, the girl he ditched on prom night. Director George Armitage has only made one film since, the disastrous Elmore Leonard adaptation "The Big Bounce," but he knocks it out of the park here -- expertly balancing a tricky meld of tones and genres, for a final product that's hilarious, thrilling and even a little moving -- witness Cusack's quietly heartbreaking encounter with his mother. The script is remarkably good, and eminently quotable, and the cast are top-notch across the board -- put it this way, it's a film where both Minnie Driver and Dan Aykroyd give great performances. It's a treat for the ears, too -- Cusack's pal Joe Strummer wrote the score, and the two-volume soundtrack, which features Violent Femmes, The Specials, The Clash, Pete Townshend, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Pixies and Grandmaster Flash, is probably the greatest filmic selection of '80s-themed cuts to date. [A]

Ichi The Killer" (2001)
It's easy to understand the backlash surrounding a director that not only revels in violence, but is held in high regards by the same headache-inducing nerd crowd that designate a videogame mature or good if it sports a dark palette and murder. Even so, equating Takashi Miike to the creators of "Saw" is not only naive, it's actively ignoring talent. "Ichi the Killer," arguably his most well-known effort, follows three characters after the murder of a crime boss: Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano, "Mongol"), central weirdo and sadomasochistic next-in-line; Kaneko (Hiroyuki Tanaka), former cop and present gunman in the gang; and titular character Ichi (Nao Omori, "Demonlover"), a psychotic murderer being manipulated to pick off Yakuza members one-by-one. All of these perspectives give the over-the-top thriller/drama/comedy an unfortunate two-hour running time, it's also no help that the movie doesn't find its footing until the first 30 or so minutes are through. However, those who don't throw in the towel will be pleasantly surprised when things finally click, with Miike jumping perspectives seamlessly and giving the film's own crude, bizarre nature a more playful, less forced handling. There's also some smarts in its ending, which preps for an all-out battle between two vicious nuts but instead calls its own shots in a way that is comical, unnerving, and (taking into account the final frame) somehow touching. Aside from that there's admittedly not much depth, and while the majority of the flick is indubitably engaging, the barf bags handed out before each TIFF screening accurately describe the tone and intention of the piece. [B-]

In Bruges" (2008)
While most movies based on plays are unappealing static in their staging and shots, this original script written and directed by playwright Martin McDonagh is a near-perfect example of cinematic style that takes full advantage of its picturesque Belgian locale. Despite his clear talent as a director, McDonagh retains a playwright’s ear for dialogue. The Oscar-nominated script is witty and fresh, even though its basic premise--a hitman coming to terms with his crimes--is nothing new. After a botched job, freshman killer Ray (Colin Farrell) and more experienced hitman Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent to the titular city to cool their heels. Ray is hilariously miserable, constantly slagging his surroundings with bits like, “If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't.” If that offends, run fast, because that’s as kind as this wonderfully misanthropic film gets. Farrell redeems himself of any past sins here and Gleeson continues to impress, but Ralph Fiennes steals scenes as the pair’s foul-mouthed boss. [A]

Kill Bill Vol 1/2" (2003)
Let’s move past the proper accolades paid to Tarantino’s two-parter collage epic and focus briefly on his approach to Bill’s team of killers. While O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) settles into a “queen of the underworld” groove, Budd (Michael Madsen) and Elle (Daryl Hannah) prove more difficult to get a handle on, especially Hannah’s slippery, brutal and vengeful one-eyed dame. We are not used to seeing pot-bellied former assassins working at strip bars and Tarantino is wise to show Budd berated by the slimy owner (Larry Bishop). Even though we are clearly aware of what the man known as Sidewinder is capable of, Budd takes the abuse, committed to a life wasting away in parched wasteland. That’s just scratching the surface – consider what the Bride (Uma Thurman) is put through despite her world-renowned assassin status. Just food for thought as “Kill Bill” continues to impress. [A-]

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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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