Total Recall

Total Recall: Thank Goodness For Hit Men

This Thanksgiving Day, take a moment to think about all those underappreciated assassins, just like the pilgrims used to.

by | November 23, 2007 | Comments

It’s Black Friday. If you’re not at home (and taking
precious family time to read RT, for which we thank you), then you’re at the
mall picking up bargains whilst navigating this week’s deluge of wide releases.
Among them is Hitman, the tale of a skilled contract killer who finds
himself in the midst of deadly political intrigue, and we figure it would be a
good time to explore the dark, disreputable cinematic world of the gun-for-hire.

For vicarious thrills, it’s hard to top movies about contract killers. There’s
something fascinating about watching characters that operate in shadowy
territory, following their own unyielding codes of ethics, getting into and out
of danger on the strength of their wits. Movies about hitmen swim in moral
ambiguity, asking audiences to identify with, or even root for, people who are
in the business of killing. Cinemagoers have long had obsessions with contract
killers — even if they were one-dimensional characters, so long as they looked
cool (Boba Fett, anyone?). But in the past decades, they’ve been flying out of
the margins in a big way, discovering some personality and taking on lives of their own.


After cutting his teeth on drama and action flicks like
The Big
Blue
(67 percent on the Tomatometer) and
La Femme Nikita
(82 percent), director
Luc Besson hit
his groove with 1994’s
Léon
(aka The
Professional
, 72 percent).
Jean Reno stars
as the titular character, a withdrawn hitman saddled with an orphaned 12-year-old (Natalie
Portman
) after her family is slaughtered by a corrupt cop (Gary
Oldman
). The cast and crew were firing on all cylinders with this one: Reno’s
befuddled French guy and Portman’s tomboy pixie acts are endearing; Oldman makes even something as mundane as taking a pill amusingly bombastic; and
Besson’s trademark action scenes never felt as casually cool as they did here,
especially Léon’s climatic fight defending his apartment.
“Luc Besson’s lone-hitman thriller sees a 12 year-old
Natalie Portman push the boundaries of love and pedophilia,” writes Shannon J.
Harvey of Australia’s Sunday Times, “[It’s] as emotionally complex as it
is a slick action thrill-ride.”

1994 proved to be a banner year for hitmen public relations. Not only did
Léon strive to show a killer in a sympathetic light, but
Quentin
Tarantino
also fine-tuned their image in
Pulp Fiction
(96
percent), presenting hitmen not as just mere antagonists who showed up, did
their dirty work, and then disappeared. Pulp Fiction‘s killers (Samuel
L. Jackson
and
John Travolta)
were out-and-out bad dudes, but Tarantino also delved into their lives before
and after murder gigs, creating a portrait of two otherwise regular guys who
suffered mid-career crises and engaged in trite conversations.



The Léon trailer.


Most cinematic hitmen operate with an air of detached routine. Few are guided by
an ancient code of conduct. The titular hero in 1999’s

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
(80 percent) is a singular
character in the hitman movie pantheon: contract killer, student of samurai
codes, ornithology enthusiast.
Jim Jarmusch‘s
moody, darkly funny film follows Ghost Dog (Forest
Whittaker
), who carries out contract killings for a local mobster who saved
his life years before, operating in almost total anonymity (they communicate via
homing pigeon). When one of Ghost Dog’s assignments goes awry, the mob decides
he needs to be rubbed out.

Ghost Dog expertly borrows the moody ambience of

Jean-Pierre Melville
‘s
Le Samourai
(100
percent) and the dark absurdity of
Seijun Suzuki‘s
Branded to Kill
(100 percent), and features a hypnotic score from the Wu Tang Clan’s
RZA. It’s a very
strange movie, one that combines genre thrills with Jarmusch’s trademark
quirkiness. Whittaker is on top of his game, playing a character who’s either a
stern, ritualistic loner or a man who’s deeply, deeply troubled; the performance
is so pitch-perfect that it could be read either way. “Ghost Dog is an
impeccably shot and sensationally scored deadpan parody of two current popular
modes — the hit-man glorification saga and the Cosa Nostra family drama,” wrote
J. Hoberman from the Village Voice.



Ghost Dog: Freakin’ ninja moves.


Pierce Brosnan
had only recently left his role as the unflappable 007 when he starred as
Julian, the gun-shy assassin in 2005’s
The Matador

(75 percent). Beleaguered and struggling with a quasi-existential crisis, one
can’t help thinking that Julian’s professional impotence owes something to his
tenure at the MI6. But this high-level assassin looks more like a traveling
salesman than an International Man of Mystery: working from a suitcase, keeping
no ties, and finding his happiness in either bottles or brothels. When he meets
unlucky nice guy Danny (Greg
Kinnear
), Julian is confronted with all the experiences he might have had if
he only treated life as something that couldn’t be traded for a briefcase full
of bills.

Sure it could have gone tacky and cliché — hit man finds his conscience — but
instead Brosnan’s psychology is as illusive as a hitman after a mark. Meanwhile,
Kinear’s Danny practices his own brand of character assassination by spreading
the word of his encounter with Julian to all his cocktail hour consorts.
Unmoored in the seas of international intrigue and middle management, Julian and
Danny alternate between clinging to each other and fleeing from each other.
While a tad befuddling, The Matador makes for good cocktail conversation.
“After you see this delightful black comedy about a hit man gone to seed, you’ll
never again pigeonhole Brosnan as a tuxedo-clad sophisticate with nerves of
steel,” wrote Jack Garner of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.


The Matador: Struttin’.

If you can’t get enough of cinematic assassins, lock and load your Netflix queue
with
Point of No Return
(45 percent),
Grosse Point
Blank
(76 percent), and
The Memory of a
Killer
(83 percent).

Authors: Alex Vo, Tim Ryan, Sara Schieron

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