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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 Memory of a Killer" (2003)
It’s safe to assume that a hired killer needs to remember their target. So just how dangerous is a silver-haired career murderer with an onset of Alzheimer’s? Known as “The Alzheimer Case” beyond the U.S. this 2003 Belgian entry to the Academy Awards is a well made, if conventional, thriller held aloft by a genuinely fascinating concept – killer Angelo Ledda (Jan Decleir) is literally losing his mind. Racked by episodes of memory loss, Ledda wages war on a former employer while meticulous Detective Eric Vincke (Koen De Bouw) closes in on a conspiracy that will bring both men together for an anti-climatic, but still undeniably effective finale. It hasn’t aged particularly well due to some aggressive editing flourishes, but still works as an engaging thriller. [B]

Munich" (2005)
Though not every film he made during this period was a success (we’re looking at you, “The Terminal”), Steven Spielberg was on quite a roll in the early 2000s. In the summer of 2005 as his “War of the Worlds” re-imaginging was hitting theatres, he was still deep in filming “Munich,” (his sixth film in four years), which he would rush to complete for its December release. This urgency finds its way into the film which even with an epic running time of nearly 3 hours, never drags for a moment. Based on the true story of the men assembled to assassinate the people behind the Israeli murders at the 1972 Munich Olympics, “Munich” shows the veteran filmmaker operating on pure instinct. If you’re not familiar with the events depicted, you’ll have to pay close attention to keep up because thankfully the film doesn’t slow to bog the audience down with exposition. Spielberg has always had a knack for casting and the ensemble here is no exception: a terrific Eric Bana (who hasn’t found a role this great since) leads the team with support from Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz and Geoffrey Rush among others, all giving it their “A” game. The rushed pace of the film (and its production) mostly result in a great energy throughout (the suspense sequences are expertly done and the violence is clumsy, ugly and brutal) but a few stumbles in the last act keep it from being a true masterpiece. [A-]

Road To Perdition" (2002)
After sweeping the Oscars with his debut film, the divisive suburban satire “American Beauty,” Sam Mendes turned his attention to this graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Tom Hanks (in his darkest role to date) stars as a hitman, Michael Sullivan, seeking revenge on his former employer and surrogate father, John Rooney (Paul Newman) for killing his family. He goes on the run taking along his young son (Tyler Hoechlin) while being pursued by a nasty assassin (a nearly unrecognizable Jude Law) and a seething Daniel Craig appears as Rooney’s jealous son. The graphic novel may have been pulpy but Mendes and screenwriter David Self strip the story down bare to a film about fathers and sons and the consequences of violence. The dialogue is spare but the images tell the story; it was the last film to be shot by veteran cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (“Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid”) and it’s jaw droppingly beautiful. At the time of it’s release, the film was a modest hit receiving positive reviews and grossing over $100 million in the U.S. alone. But a decade later and it seems to have been almost forgotten which is a shame because this is a film that deserves to be discovered. [A]

The American" (2010)
While “The American” befuddled mainstream audiences (this reviewer’s mother is convinced the only reason George Clooney made the movie is because he could stay at his house at Lake Como while shooting) that mostly had to do with the film’s marketing campaign, which sold it as a high-octane thriller instead of the atmospheric mood piece it really was. And, taken on its own, “The American,” directed by music video auteur Anton Corbijn, is a corking contraption – a gorgeously rendered story of an assassin hiding out in an idyllic Italian village whose past catches up with him. The film is deliberately paced without ever being draggy, and despite some heavy-handed allegorical touches (we get it – butterflies), is nearly note perfect in its tone and, pardon the expression, execution. [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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