The substance of cinematic tales of professional killers pivots on how their violence is depicted. At the heart of nearly every movie of the subgenre is the question of whether or not violence can ever really be seen as excusable or, more pointedly, as a useful deterrent to crime or a recourse for violence. And yet, any great movie depends on an empathetic lead, even if their actions are unforgivable and their outlook on life is pickled by cynicism. In the very best cases, the resulting movie is a psychological portrait of a modernized man or woman making their living off of the destruction of other lives. And like the figure of the prostitute, the role has immense power and implications as a symbol of the capitalistic philosophies and spirit that thrives in America and other first-world nations.
It helps when the lead performer connects with such a compromised and alienating character. In Collateral, Michael Mann got at a different side of Tom Cruise, not exactly the same smiling man of action. Cruise’s Vincent, topped with silvery grey hair to match the hungry wolves that stalk Mann’s nocturnal L.A, inverted that image. Where wit, good-humor, and invention often mark Cruise’s heroes, Vincent can only hold that as a thin veneer. With the faintest shift in conversation, he adopts a clinical, even bureaucratic temperament, underlined by a furious need for control of his environment. For Cruise, who is notorious for essentially usurping filmmakers and directing many of his starring vehicles by himself, the reflective substance of the performance, which volleys between seemingly friendly small-talk to furious or detached violence, is potent. It’s one of his most magnetic performances.
On paper, Collateral is not Cruise’s movie – its narrative trajectory follows Jamie Foxx’s desperate cab driver, Max, more closely. Stuart Beattie’s script hinges on Max’s struggle to take control of his own life, but it’s Vincent’s seductive aura, his cold-blooded technique, and his work with fellow criminal honchos like Javier Bardem’s Felix that renders Mann’s movie so striking. In other words, it’s the quotidian tasks and emotional rhythms of the hitman – or hit-person, rather – that gives the movie its most seductive quality.
Though the long-surviving resurgence of assassin and hitman tales in movies owes its popularity to Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction, similar characters are cornerstones of some of the best movies of past decades, going all the way back to the 1930s. This goes as much for domestic classics – This Gun for Hire, The Killers, and The Narrow Margin, just to start – as it does for international favorites like Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo or Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai. And yet, most movies that take the hitman or assassin as their subject are often not entirely interested in dissecting the mental, physical, or philosophical make-up of a human being who makes their living by killing other people. In the worst cases, the inherent mystique of such a character gives way to a cynical kind of hero-worship, a sense that apathy toward human life is cool even when its results are brutal or tragic.
That’s unfortunately part of the problem with Quentin Tarantino’s takes on these types, wherein there’s seemingly no need to consider the reality of executing such schemes and getting away with it. In the case of Kill Bill, the profession is essentially just used to explain Beatrix’s proficiency with all sorts of weaponry; the movie is less about the moral weight of murder than the impulsive need for revenge. Even Jules’ final renunciation of his violent ways at the end of Pulp Fiction feels more about having something cool to say than genuine regret. This somewhat reckless attitude is uniquely acceptable in Tarantino’s pulpy, exaggerated hash of B-movie tropes, to the point that he often transcends the very same clichés. His example, however, is responsible for some of the most empty and cowardly works of the 1990s and aughts, ranging from the execrable Boondock Saints movies to The Big Hit to Smokin’ Aces.
Even these preening shoot-ups are preferable to an increasingly popular strain of moralized killers. Though amiable on the surface, the softness and overall cutesiness of Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges suggests an unfounded fondness and empathy for the two lead killers-for-hire and yet the story is built with an entirely marginal interest in revealing their weaknesses or emotional emptiness. Plenty of the talk in In Bruges centers on the moral weight of the work but it remains little more than talk. Visually, there’s no sense of how inherently cowardly the work is, and the reasoning behind Colin Farrell’s hitman’s choice of occupation is expressed flippantly. McDonagh’s ultimate conclusion is that murder done for profit is both inevitable and pretty funny. The only more reprehensible dynamic is the earnest route, such as in something like Colombiana, wherein the sadism of the violence is heightened more than the heroism or the narrative world on the whole. The end result of such narratives is not only the legitimization of vigilantism for money or otherwise, but depicting execution with prejudice as central to justice.
The only positive aspect of Colombiana is that it gives Zoe Saldana a full showcase for her talents, as much as an action star with reliable physicality as a dramatic powerhouse. She doesn’t show a distinct side of his personality in the same way that Cruise does in Collateral but the roles present the same set of challenges. Keanu Reeves similarly gave one of his most immediately engaging performances in years as the titular retired hitman in John Wick, and Sam Rockwell’s energetic performance in Mr. Right nearly saved the movie from Max Landis’ script. Jean Reno earns much of his reputation in America to his strangely endearing yet sufficiently unsettling work at the center of Luc Besson’s cult classic Leon the Professional.
This is clearly also what drives a movie like Proud Mary as well, a project that might have really popped under more imaginative direction than that provided by London Has Fallen director Babak Najafi. Indeed, what is often missing from these movies is a director with any sense of distinct style to offer a glimpse at the interior life of the protagonist outside of the limitations of performance. Chinese helmer Johnnie To often centers his films on professional killers, and his extravagant use of fight choreography and expressive editing matches the ludicrous high personal and mortal stakes of the drama. In Exiled, his 2006 knockout, he renders a gunfight into a gravity-defying ballet of bodies twisting around the path of flying bullets. John Woo’s The Killer counters the raucous, boundless battles between hitmen with outlandish melodrama that would make John Waters hoot in approval.
Melville took an opposite approach in Le Samourai. The entire world of the gangland loner of the title seems drained of warmth and caring, but is no less hypnotic and alluring. There’s the unmistakable feeling of barely-repressed rage bubbling up underneath every scene with Alain Delon, and there’s similar lethal fury at the center of Melville’s other operatic crime epic, The Red Circle. Melville gets at the loneliness of the work, the isolation that it demands and the glossy but empty rewards of being a hired executioner. If there’s a similar distancing going on in Fred Zinneman’s thrilling adaptation of The Day of the Jackal, the director and the writers are much more focused on the diligent routine and constant, complex work that goes into being an international assassin.
Wita better script, John Wick might have been in that same category but that movie is openly more about the drive that vengeance affords along with fleeting satisfactions. Wick isn’t really a character at all, actually, and that’s what limits the movie’s admittedly already robust rewards. Focusing too much on the everyday life of a hitman can also lead to unbearably adorable black comedies or “dark” dramas like You Kill Me or The Merry Gentlemen or The Matador. It’s a hurdle that Bill Hader’s upcoming comedy series Barry will also have to overcome.
Few of these films have genuine character outside of that proffered by the lead actors, and even in that case, the performers rarely find something personal to attach to in the script. Grosse Pointe Blank is the rare exception to this rule. For John Cusack, the role of Martin Blank reflected a need to kill off the cute young man of the 1980s comedies, and a sly criticism of the base characters he was playing up until then. Cusack worked on the script with Steve Pink, Tom Jankiewicz, and D.V. DeVincentis and one can feel his conflicted nostalgia about his career in the high-school reunion setting as well as the series of battles between Martin and other guns for hire.
Rather than avert the emotional and moral detachment that the work regularly requires, George Armitage’s film faces that feeling and suggests that there may be redemption. It’s imperfect – the ending is a bit too neat and sweet – but unlike so many black comedies that attempt to get an easy yuck out of murder, Grosse Pointe Blank comes close to both seeing the damaged person that would do this work and give a palpable sense of the technical skill, discipline, and intelligence that professional murder entails. At their best, movies about hitters have a tragic heart at the center of the drama, brought on by a troubled notion of humanity or justice. Where blood and murder is so often what brings tattered glory to these characters, the truly exceptional ones come most fervently alive when violence is seen as ugly and absurd, desperate and demeaning, endless and empty.