The Killer" (1989)
Watching John Woo’s balletic symphony of violence is something of a bittersweet moment. The film is an electric tale of a hitman trying to do right by the girl he’s blinded, and the dedicated cop on his trail, a film bathed in gunfire, drenched in the macho melodrama of men with big hearts and bigger guns. But to dip your toe into the world of “The Killer,” which builds to an action crescendo never quite seen before or since, is to witness an action epic that you know can almost never be replicated. Woo imbues the hitman movie tropes with dignity and a sly sense of humor with Chow Yun-Fat’s charismatic moviestar performance, but also has time for the memorably kitschy dichotomy between cop and criminal, taking cheap-seat theatrics writ large and setting them as the foreground to an orgy of bullets. The most exciting two hours you’ll spend watching a movie. [A]

Le Samourai" (1967)
"There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle... Perhaps..." So goes the on-screen text that introduces Alain Delon as the hero of Jean-Pierre Melville's crime-classic "Le Samourai" (in one of the all-time great character introductions) and it's something that reflects the picture as a whole. Jef is a professional killer, and a man with few connections, or even signs of humanity. His minimalist lifestyle (mirrored by Melville's directorial technique) starts to fall apart when he's watched leaving the scene of a hit -- turning himself into a target by his employers. Delon was never better, slowly letting hidden depths creep into the initially super-cool exterior, and the film's been influential to a point -- almost everything on this list, from "The Killer" to "The American," owes a giant debt to Mellville's film. And who among us can say we've never bought a beige trenchcoat in the hope of looking a little bit more like the anti-hero here?... Melville had dipped into the underworld well many times before, but never as completely or perfectly he does here -- it's his masterpiece of the genre, to the degree that, when he followed it up, it was with the autobiographical wartime drama "Army of Shadows" [A+]

Leon" (1994)
Almost threatening to overdose on style, Luc Besson’s “Leon” aka “The Professional” is yet another example of the hitman-with-a-heart-of-gold movie. But Besson’s American debut pairs the oft-childlike, efficient killer Leon (Besson favorite Jean Reno) with wiser-than-her-years tween Mathilda (Natalie Portman in her film debut), with the latter desperate to learn the former’s craft after the murder of her entire family. Gary Oldman is Crazy-with-a-capital-C as the crooked cop responsible, and he’s almost too much. However, it’s the interaction between Reno and Portman that keeps the movie watchable, though the international cut does more than hint at 12-year-old Mathilda’s attraction to the far older Leon. There are kinetic, well-edited action scenes, but “Leon” is at its most engaging in a charming scene when Mathilda and Leon pretend to be Hollywood greats Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Madonna and John Wayne. [B+]

The Matador" (2005)
In Richard Shepherd’s shaggy-dog friendship story, Pierce Brosnan plays a hired killer having a crisis of faith as he realizes he has no friends or family, unhappily leading an empty lifestyle. Trouble brews when he decides to remedy this, befriending a mild-mannered salesman (Greg Kinnear, typecast) and his harried wife (a very funny Hope Davis). The film touches on pretty pedestrian midlife crisis gags and it builds to a conclusion that unsuccessfully straddles the line between silly and believable. But Brosnan is 100% game, giving a comic performance of extraordinary sadness, Shepherd allowing this sadsack to shine through a depressing stock wardrobe, a tacky mustache, and a ribald, wholly inappropriate sense of humor. [B-]