The three most popular professions in cinema, based on the frequency with which they appear in movies, are writers, hitmen, and gaffers. (It’s true, so you don’t need to bother looking it up.) Hitman films in particular are a staple both in Hollywood and abroad, and this week sees yet another one in The Hitman’s Bodyguard.
It’s obviously geared as much toward comedy as it is toward action, and if it succeeds it will be in good company alongside other humorous hitman flicks like Grosse Pointe Blank and In Bruges. Movies about killers for hire don’t have to be funny, of course, and there are plenty of great ones that take things far more seriously, with Leon, Collateral, The Killer, and Looper being just a few of the best and most memorable.
Funny or straight, the one thing all of these share in common is that they’re well known and well loved … so let’s not waste any more time on them. Instead, let’s take a look at a few that are liked/loved by those who’ve seen them but that haven’t been seen nearly enough.
Who doesn’t love James Woods? Granted, I’m not sure what he’s been up to in recent years, but the man’s a national treasure both on and off the screen. Here he plays a hitman who teams up with a writer (see!) to compose a tell-all book about his life as a killer working for very powerful politicians. He’s a bit of an anti-hero whose actions lead to all manner of homicides, and Woods and Brian Dennehy make for a fun mismatched pair both in and out of the gunfights that follow. It’s a simple, high-concept premise done well — a common trait among Larry Cohen’s scripts — and it’ll leave you falling in love with Woods’ quirky, coke-addled stylings all over again.
Vaginas shooting out ping pong balls was all the rage back in the ‘80s, but leave it to Takashi Miike to take that commonplace hobby a decade later and modify it into something a bit deadlier. When a yakuza gangster kills one of his sons to appease another crime boss, the other son vows revenge and forms a teenage gang of his own, including a teenage assassin who shoots poison darts from her lady bits. Look, Miike is an acquired taste, and at the rate he makes movies (three have been shot, edited, and scheduled for release since you started reading this) even fans like myself can’t like them all, but this is one of his great ones. It’s wild, creative, violent, and frequently instructive in the ways of genital murder.
Hitman movies by their nature are typically action-oriented, and that may be why this fantastic movie isn’t as appreciated by filmgoers as it is by critics. Stephen Frears has crafted something of a melancholic road movie here with his story of an ex-gangster (Terence Stamp) snatched by two hitmen (John Hurt and Tim Roth) sent to avenge his squealing to the Feds a decade earlier. It’s tense and suspenseful even as conversations take precedence over gun fights, and while it builds to a satisfying conclusion, the journey is more character study than action movie. That’s not a bad thing.
I’m possibly a minority of one in my affinity for this one, and I definitely like it more than the Weinstein brothers, who marketed the movie, cancelled its release, re-cut and re-shot nearly half of it (including deleting a whole character played by Johnny Knoxville), and then buried it. Mickey Rourke and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play a pair of mismatched hitmen tasked with eliminating a married couple (Diane Lane and Thomas Jane), but it’s not as easy as they first believed. Elmore Leonard’s source novel becomes something of a distant memory, but it’s a solid little action-thriller anyway.
This isn’t a great movie (or even a good movie?) but it still manages to be underrated thanks to its genre-bending narrative and somewhat bonkers execution. It starts like a soft-core T&A flick about a sex-happy teenager before shifting into a story featuring blackmail and prostitution, but it’s still only getting started. Our heroine — as unlikable a lead character as you’ve ever seen in a Skinemax movie — soon ups the ante and becomes a teenage assassin. The playful, carefree booty-bumping of the first act is long gone and replaced with murder, double crosses, and a dark tone that makes The Last American Virgin look like American Pie.
Fine, you’ve seen Munich and you maybe even like Munich, but goddammit you should love Munich. It’s top-five Steven Spielberg despite never quite getting the appreciation it deserves. (I blame Schindler’s List.) The film is an epic tale about the pointless cycle of revenge and violence, and it focuses on a five-man team of assassins tasked with eliminating a group of terrorists. It’s brutal, unflinching, and filled with life even as the bodies pile up. Spielberg’s known as a master of popcorn cinema, and this grim, bleak, dark-as-hell entry in his filmography stands out like a little red coat in a black-and-white movie. Give it another chance to wow you. (And then maybe re-watch War of the Worlds while you’re at it, too.)
It’s typically enough for a hitman movie to feature a hitman because hey, who doesn’t love hitmen, but this entry from the Philippines is far from typical. It has two hitmen. But wait, there’s more. Based on a true story, the film follows a pair of prison inmates who are routinely let out on falsified day passes to commit assassinations before returning back to jail. It’s an ingenious alibi, and the film (directed by Erik Matti) pits the killers against competing interests including some hard-nosed investigators and the high-ranking politicians who may be involved in the deadly shenanigans. It’s alternately slick and grimy but never less than fascinating.
Most of the movies on this list are ones you’ve heard of, maybe seen, and possibly forgot about, but if there’s one that’s completely new to you it’s probably this minor gem from Canada. (And that’s why you haven’t heard of it.) The film has two recognizable faces in the leads, with Randy Quaid playing a killer and Jay Baruchel weaseling his way through the role of a down-on-his-luck gambler targeted for extinction. The soon-to-be-dead man convinces the hitman to give him an extra hour of life, and it’s here that the title comes into play as we follow along with the ticking clock and these two isolated souls. It’s fun despite the grim premise and offers yet another example of the talent Quaid displayed before his apparent brain death in 2010.
Family time is important, even for a hitman, but when duty calls it’s goodbye kid’s birthday party and hello double tap to the head. That’s the very simple setup of director/writer/composer/star Alex van Warmerdam’s blackly comic thriller, but things unsurprisingly don’t go according to plan. The killer’s target is a writer (mm-hmm) who is far from the promised easy mark, and the resulting back and forth between the two men offers a series of darkly comedic obstacles getting in the way of murder. The film eschews big, bombastic laughs in favor of dry humor and methodically paced story turns. It’s morbidly funny, often suspenseful, and surprisingly heartfelt at times. Seek it out.
You couldn’t throw a pack of Red Apple cigarettes back in the ‘90s without hitting a movie trying its damnedest to be the next Quentin Tarantino-like darling. From 2 Days in the Valley to The Boondock Saints, everyone thought all you needed to do was mash together gruesome violence, creatively foul language, and a menagerie of unrealistic oddballs, and voila — commercial and critical success. Most of them aren’t worth the weight of their IMDB page, but Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is an exception. The overused “boat drinks” salutation aside, Scott Rosenberg’s script delivers a steady barrage of fun and fascinating characters, fast and cruel dialogue, and a twisted puzzle box of interconnected stories. Andy Garcia, Christopher Lloyd, and Treat Williams are all aces, but it’s Steve Buscemi as the silent assassin Mr. Shhh who steals the show.
Charles Bronson has played a hitman/assassin more times than I’ve gone to the bathroom today, and while his best remains The Mechanic, this Italian production is a close second. Bronson plays a killer who’s double-crossed while on vacation, left for dead, and falsely imprisoned. It’s not a great trip all things considered, but once he’s released he goes looking for vengeance and the woman who betrayed him. The film opens with a killer car chase and goes on to deliver some stylish thrills from the Virgin Islands to New Orleans, with Bronson doing his best Bronson throughout. Toss in an evil Telly Savalas and a synth-heavy Ennio Morricone score, and you have a great little flick deserving of more appreciation.
Rob Hunter lives in California and kills people for free, like a common trollop.