‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)
Sure, “Pulp Fiction” is a lot of things — it’s an energetic, blood-splattered bouillabaisse of pop culture references, snappy dialogue, and colorful character; it’s also the defining film of the ‘90s independent film movement, when things got cheap and dangerous — but we must not forget that its two main characters, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) are a pair of hired killers. (Love their black suits!) They’re under the employ of a mysterious gangster (Ving Rhames) to retrieve a magical briefcase, the contents of which are never revealed (leading to much online speculation, most of it marijuana-fueled). But what they really do is kill — and they do it well, easily offing the ragamuffins who have the briefcase (and accidentally killing one of their sources, in one of the most grotesquely hilarious scenes ever). As far as hit men go, it’s hard to think of a cooler pair of killers.
‘Leon’/’The Professional’ (1994)
The same year that “Pulp Fiction” blasted onto the screen, across the pond in France, Luc Besson was unleashing “Leon” (released as “The Professional” in the United States), the tale of a lonely hit man named Leon (played by Jean Reno) who forms an unlikely friendship with an orphaned young girl (played by future Oscar winner Natalie Portman). Sort of an extension of his sensational “Le Femme Nikita” (more on that in a minute), Besson’s Leon teaches his young apprentice how to become a killer, in order to exact revenge on the villainous crooked cop who killed her entire family (played by a scenery-chomping Gary Oldman). While “Leon” has some questionable moral issues (the relationship between the two sometimes borders on the icky and inappropriate), it’s unquestionably one of Besson’s boldest, most brilliant films, breathlessly thrilling and very, very strange. Plus, it’s easier to root for a professional killer when the bad guy is so very, very evil.
‘Grosse Pointe Blank’ (1997)
At the time of “Grosse Pointe Blank’s” release, which was in the heat of the so-cool-it-hurts indie movie movement of the ‘90s, Quentin Tarantino joked that the movie was “Mr. Blonde goes to his high school reunion,” a reference to the Michael Madsen character in Tarantino’s seminal “Reservoir Dogs.” And yes, this tale of a hit man (played by ‘80s high school mainstay John Cusack, in an uncanny bit of casting), who returns home for his high school reunion and falls in love (with an adorable Minnie Driver) while battling various underworld foes, does feel a little too indebted to Tarantino and his ilk. But it’s a testament to the movie’s endless amount of charm that it doesn’t really matter. The film has a poppy playfulness — exemplified by its ‘80s soundtrack — which never allows the movie’s inherent darkness to overtake it. It’s a blast (pun very much intended).
‘The Killer’ (1989)
If Tarantino’s obsession with hit men inspired a plethora of imitators, then Tarantino himself was inspired by John Woo’s seminal classic, the tale of an assassin who takes one last job in order to right a wrong. Everything from Woo’s stylish cinematography (guys in cool suits, blown out windows, expertly used slow motion) to his gunfight choreography (both filmmakers are big fans of the “Mexican standoff”) are gingerly lifted by Tarantino. Chow-Yun Fat is an amazing lead, both effortlessly cool and surprisingly emotive, and the film has a huge heart to go along with its sizable body count.
‘In Bruges’ (2008)
Earlier this year, McDonagh gave us the hellzapoppin’ “Seven Psychopaths,” a blood-soaked crime comedy that featured a number of hired guns in its rotating cast of nutjobs. But the director was more concerned with professional killers in his winning debut feature, “In Bruges.” The tale of a pair of hit men (played by Brendan Gleeson and an unusually neurotic Colin Farrell) who are sent to a small medieval town in Brussels after a hit goes horribly wrong, “In Bruges” is a singularly odd concoction of shocking violence and goofy comedy. Anchored by a pair of brilliant lead performances, you’ve probably never seen anything like “In Bruges” (and that’s mostly for the best). Gleeson and Farrell provide a fully dimensional look at what it means to be a professional killer, with Ralph Fiennes showing up as their more broadly drawn boss (and the movie’s de facto villain). There’s a reason “In Bruges” seems destined for cult classic status — too strange to be a mainstream success, but all the more lovable for it.
What about hit men… in the future? In the wickedly entertaining, sorely under-seen “Looper,” director Rian Johnson imagines a future in which hit men called loopers assassinate targets sent back in time from the even-further-flung future. Is your mind a pretzel yet? If not, then wait until you hear the main plot of the film, which concerns a looper (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is tasked with murdering the older version of himself (something known as “closing your loop”), who has been sent back in time but escapes (played by none other than Bruce Willis). Gordon-Levitt then has to find himself, kill, um, himself, and avoid the various underworld types who think that it would just be easier if they killed him here and now. As Jeff Daniels’ mobster character admits, “all this time travel stuff will fry your brain like an egg,” but as far as a new take on hit men goes, “Looper” is the kind of breathless entertainment that comes around all too seldom in the high-concept world of science fiction.
‘La Femme Nikita’ (1990)
Like Quentin Tarantino and Martin McDonagh, Besson is a filmmaker obsessed with hit men or, in this case, hitwomen. In his 1990 breakthrough, which became an international sensation, a young criminal (played by Anne Parillaud; what happened to her? Anyone know?) is recruited by a shady government organization to become a hired gun. People don’t talk a lot about “La Femme Nikita,” which is strange given how influential it’s become over the years. In addition to two different television series and a not-half-bad American retelling (the sassy “Point of No Return” with Bridget Fonda), the film inspired Besson’s own “Leon” (Reno essentially plays the same character) and Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” in which Harvey Keitel plays a variation on the Reno character, a “cleaner” called The Wolf. Terrifically entertaining and effortlessly stylish, “La Femme Nikita” is a movie so great that you can understand why it’s been recycled endlessly.
‘Smokin’ Aces’ (2006)
In terms of the sheer number of hitmen, nothing quite tops “Smokin’ Aces,” a bizarro crime thriller from Joe Carnahan, who made his name with the subtler cop movie “Narc.” Here, Jeremy Piven plays a magician who has started ratting on his mob buddies to the FBI, which leads to a free-for-all involving at least a dozen assassins attempting punch his ticket. The movie is colorful and gory, augmented by a wild collection of character actors who are all gunning for Piven’s head (among them: Alicia Keys, Tommy Flanagan, Common, Taraji P. Henson, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Pine and Kevin Durand). “Smokin’ Aces” is sometimes a little too crazy (to the point of incoherence), but while it lasts, it’s a whole lot of blood-soaked fun.
‘Blast of Silence’ (1961)
Originally released as a marginal matinee-filler in the early sixties, gritty black-and-white thriller “Blast of Silence” has been rescued from obscurity by some prominent cheerleaders like Martin Scorsese “Blast of Silence” still resonates because of its emotional and technical rawness. Director Allen Baron, an oddball auteur who directed a handful of films before helming countless hours of television, also stars in the film, playing a hit man who returns to New York City to off a low-level gangster. The movie is a little more than an hour long and is obsessed with the minutia of the hit man lifestyle: the tracking of a target, getting the right weapon, and staging the murder correctly. Things take a turn when the killer runs into someone from his past, which lends the movie an unexpected emotional resonance. “Blast of Silence” is a nifty, grimy little movie that makes you want to take a shower afterwards (and not to wash the blood and gunpowder off).
The plot of “Collateral” is simple and effective: Tom Cruise, in one of his rare villainous roles, plays a hit man who hires a cab (driven by Jamie Foxx) to attend to a series of assassinations, all over one very long night in Los Angeles. But instead of being thin, “Collateral” takes on the scope of a sweeping crime epic, populated with colorful characters (Mark Ruffalo, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Javier Bardem and Peter Berg all show up) and beautiful hybrid cinematography that combines digital and 35 mm film (adding to the general sense of unease), all soaked in gorgeous nighttime neon that lends the whole thing an air of apocalyptic gloom. Cruise is genuinely scary and Foxx seems genuinely scared — their relationship is a constant tightrope walk of shifting tensions and fear. As directed by Michael Mann, it’s equal parts inspired by “To Live and Die in LA” filmmaker William Friedkin and “the Mad Dog of American crime fiction” James Ellroy. As far as hit man movies go, it’s pretty unparalleled.