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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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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-]

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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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