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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.
10

The Hit" (1984)
Stephen Frears' 1984 crime drama meets on-the-road-morality-play, one of the director's earlier big-screen works, is instantly engaging -- the film boasts a hypnotic opening guitar instrumental by Eric Clapton that help sets the hazy mood, a score by Paco de Lucia, and striking icy photography by Mike Molloy (neither of whom have worked as solidly as they should have since. The thriller, which follows a gangster turncoat (Terence Stamp), kidnapped by a pair of hitmen working for those he testified against ten years earlier, is perhaps now best known as our feature-film introduction to the great Tim Roth, who was only a tender 21 years of age, and green as hell. The trio (completed by a terrific performance from John Hurt as the elder of the assassins), while at odds, begin a strange dynamic: Hurt holds onto an ominous and cool demeanor, while the carefree and mortality-aware Stamp rambles on about how he knew this day was coming. His nonchalant attitude and fearlessness infuriates Roth, who takes it as psychological mind-fuckery, unable to fathom why he's not trembling in fear over his imminent demise. It's one of the more existential picks on this list, for sure, and Frears shows why, nearly thirty years on, and even after the likes of "Cheri" and "Tamara Drewe," we're still excited every time he's making a movie. [A]

Honorable Mentions: Just as the idea of someone receiving money in return for taking a life is presumably as old as the concept of money, the hitman genre was around well before "Le Samourai" -- Frank Tuttle's noir classic "This Gun For Hire," with Veronica Lake and a chilling Alan Ladd, being one of the earlier examples, along with the Paris-set "Gunman on the Streets" (from the same director, Frank Tuttle).

1969's "Machine Gun McCain," a sort of spaghetti noir from director Giuliano Montaldo, is mostly forgotten, but the central performance from John Cassavettes more than makes it worth checking out. "The Day of the Jackal," based on Frederick Forsythe's best-seller, still grips, which is much more than can be said for the remake "The Jackal," with Bruce Willis. "The Marseille Contract" is the kind of hard-boiled British thriller that Michael Caine specialized in in the 1970s, but it doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as, say "The Ipcress File" or "Get Carter."

"Prizzi's Honor," one of John Huston's last films, is terrific, and one that only time and space prevented us from covering, while "Cohen and Tate," the directorial debut from "The Hitcher" writer Eric Red, at least has a good central performance from Roy Scheider, and a very young Adam Baldwin ("Firefly"). "Nikita" was the film that made Luc Besson's name internationally, and while it's certainly better than the Bridget Fonda-starring remake, it hasn't aged well, and certainly pales next to "Leon." Also worth avoiding: "Smokin' Aces," "Assassins" and anything with Nicolas Cage in it.

- Mark Zhuravsky, Rodrigo Perez, Cory Everett, Gabe Toro, Oli Lyttelton, Kimber Myers, Drew Taylor, Christopher Bell

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


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