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At the Movies, It’s Hard Out There for a Hit Man

Early on in the new Richard Linklater comedy “Hit Man,” the film’s main character, a nice-guy teacher named Gary (Glen Powell), informs the audience of a truth they may not want to hear: Hit men aren’t real. “It’s a total pop-culture fantasy,” he says in voiceover. “But because hit men have been a staple of books, movies and TV for the last 50 years, good luck getting anyone to believe their existence is all a myth.”

That ought to be obvious, but doesn’t life feel a little less exciting knowing there aren’t actually assassins you can hire at a moment’s notice? More specifically, it’s sad to realize that hit men don’t dwell among us. A figment of fiction’s imagination, they represent something exotic, menacing, unyielding, smoothly efficient, perfect. Even more than supervillains, hit men are cinema’s greatest bad guys—individuals who exist in the shadows, singular in focus, impossible to rattle. We’re beguiled by them because they seem so unknowable, which is perhaps why so many big-screen hit men can’t live up to the impossible standards we’ve put on their profession. Turns out, fictional assassins have a tough time resembling what we assume real assassins are like.

The typical cinematic killer is the one we see in mob movies like “The Godfather”: a brawny guy, usually well-dressed, with no discernible personality except for being good with a gun. He has no backstory, no inner life, never the hint of a smile. He doesn’t reside in the same world you and I do, so when he enters our orbit, it’s like the arrival of the Grim Reaper. You cannot reason with death—when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.

It’s those exact qualities—their solitary nature, their indestructible manner—that make hit men so darkly appealing. We mere mortals could never be them, but what fun to live vicariously through them for a couple of hours. They don’t even have to be overtly cool: Take “No Country for Old Men’s” stoic Anton Chigurh, whose bowl haircut and drab essence are the furthest thing from hip. Nonetheless, Javier Bardem played him as an immutable force shorn of humanity—someone who seemed dead on the inside and whose primary reason for being was robbing others of life. Chigurh may not look cool, but his rugged individuality made him incredibly compelling. We’re not meant to admire Chigurh, but he’s so striking a presence that he taps into a primal curiosity: What otherworldliness is required to become such an expert killer?  

That lack of humanity has often been a key quality in big-screen assassins, which explains why Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator” remains one of the finest. Other hit men are merciless, devoid of emotion, but here was an actual android. He looked like us but was profoundly not like us—without conscience or pity. James Cameron was brilliant in casting the bodybuilder, capitalizing on his star’s foreignness and imposing physique to give us a terrifying robot assassin. When Robert Patrick became the baddie in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” he adopted Schwarzenegger’s threatening blankness. We assume that hit men are superior specimens, and in the Terminator franchise, they were high-tech killing machines: bigger, stronger, faster.

It’s now been 57 years since French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville arguably gave us the coolest, most bulletproof hit man of all time in “Le Samouraï”: Alain Delon’s beautiful, piercingly intelligent Jef Costello. Decked out in trench coats and fedoras, his expression muted, his calm never disturbed, Costello navigates a world of cops and criminals, always a step ahead of the forces trying to take him down. The character may ultimately meet an unhappy end, but no one watches “Le Samouraï” and considers it a cautionary tale. Rather, Delon embodied the platonic ideal of the big-screen killer, one who, despite living in a world of existential dread, comports himself like a professional at all times. He doesn’t bring about his downfall through stupidity or sentimentality—he dies because, ultimately, we all must.

No wonder, then, that the killers who have emerged in Costello’s wake are frequently such wrecks. Indeed, nearly-infallible assassins are the exceptions in the movies. More often, filmmakers are interested in locating the vulnerability in their characters’ armor, the faint glimpses of vulnerability in their flawless design. Maybe it’s to give their hit men a little complexity—maybe to reassure us that nobody is as impervious to feeling as we imagine they must be. Whatever the reason, it’s fascinating to watch these enigmatic monsters we’ve built up in our collective consciousness stumble.

Again and again, big-screen killers are felled by what’s going on in their own heads. That’s certainly the case with John Cusack’s Martin Blank, who in “Grosse Pointe Blank” has been seeing a therapist for a while, trying to hold together his delicate psyche. The same goes for Bill Hader’s Barry Berkman, whose anxiety becomes a driving force in “Barry.” These men may be good at their job, but it’s understandably taking a mental toll on them, which is a problem when being sharp 24/7 is a prerequisite for staying alive in such a dangerous profession. Sometimes, though, these cinematic killers aren’t even that good at their job: In writer-director Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges,” Ray (Colin Farrell) is a mess because he accidentally offed a kid as part of a contract killing, the guilt eating him alive until he’s suicidal. If the idealized cinematic hit men suggested a certain kind of tough-guy masculinity—one unencumbered by the burden of pesky emotions—then Delon’s progeny found it impossible to emulate his example. Costello blazed a trail of cool they couldn’t follow.

Occasionally, these characters’ shortcoming is their inability to live up to the hit man code of having no attachments. In “Léon: The Professional,” the titular loner assassin (Jean Reno) doesn’t realize that the one thing he’s always needed in his life is a little girl named Mathilda (Natalie Portman), who seeks a protector after a corrupt DEA agent (Gary Oldman) massacres her family. The more that a hit man insists that he can’t get involved in other people’s lives, the more apparent it is that he will be immeasurably better off once he does. Similarly, George Clooney’s Jack in “The American” is a killer whose one flaw is his weakness for a beautiful prostitute (Violante Placido) while doing a job. As a rule, falling in love is a bad idea for a hit man—sure, it’ll humanize you as a character, but it tends to shorten your life expectancy. 

Can a hit man be redeemed? Oh, sure, it happens all the time—but it helps if some really bad dudes killed his dog. Ten years ago, Keanu Reeves enjoyed a commercial comeback with “John Wick,” playing the titular assassin, who was once retired and happily married. But after losing his beloved wife—and then seeing the dog his wife gave him murdered by gangsters—Wick snaps, getting revenge by utilizing his still-potent assassin skills. Who’s gonna begrudge a guy going on a four-movie killing spree when there’s a dead pet involved? Likewise, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne used to be a fine-honed government agent who left a trail of corpses in his wake. Still, once he finally realizes the error of his ways, he loses his memory, regains it, and then goes after the U.S. officials who brainwashed him. Perhaps Tom Hanks’ “Road to Perdition” character gunned down tons of folks in his day, but now that he’s on the run with his sweet son, he’s gonna become a good dad—and, by extension, a good man at last. Frequently, a movie hit man isn’t really evil—he’s just someone who needed to see the light. 

These are hardly the only ways storytellers subvert our expectations about trained killers. Because we’re used to big-screen assassins being cold-blooded, filmmakers like to throw us curveballs, presenting audiences with idiosyncratic hit men. In “Collateral,” Tom Cruise is a philosophical assassin, serving as an unlikely mentor to Jamie Foxx’s timid cab driver. In “Pulp Fiction,” John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson are like a comedy duo, riffing and wisecracking and shooting the shit when they’re not shooting people. Or maybe the characters’ murderous tendencies are meant to be a larger cultural commentary. Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” starred Jean-Louis Trintignant as a reluctant assassin swept up in Italy’s fascist movement of the 1930s—he kills to forget his homosexuality and his feelings of being an outsider. Embracing fascism and bloodshed are just ways to be accepted to conform to a cruel society. More than 50 years later, David Fincher’s “The Killer” starred Michael Fassbender as a blasé assassin who’s just one more cog in the gig economy—he kills to make ends meet. Whoever thought being a hit man was all glamorous duds and cool moves is in for a rude awakening.

That process of demystifying continues with “Hit Man,” which comes to Netflix on June 7. Based on a true story, the film features Glen Powell as Professor Gary Johnson, who works part-time with the local police, posing as a contract killer to ensnare criminals looking to hire him to bump off people. Gary is a rather undynamic individual, but when he goes undercover, he becomes bolder—it’s as if he’s playing the badass, macho hitman we all imagine from the movies. In the process, he lands a beautiful woman (Adria Arjona) and acquires a newfound confidence he never had in his real life. Being an assassin would be wrong, but pretending to be one might not be the worst thing.

“Hit Man” is a funny movie with a serious idea at its core: Hit men don’t exist, but we wouldn’t mind inhabiting their world, if for no other reason than to forget our own measly existence for a little while. Hollywood has long sold the fantasy of the hit man, but it’s notable how often filmmakers have pushed against that fantasy. The killers on the screen are eminently lethal, but even they can’t rub out the impossible image we’ve created of them. 

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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