Assassins. Hit men. Contract killers. Whatever you call them, Hollywood has a long and passionate love affair with characters who make a living by murdering other people. It’s one of the movies’ darkest fantasies – the ability to take lives with impunity – coupled with a healthy dose of the old ultra-violence that we all find so appallingly irresistible. Some hit men are played for laughs. Others undergo profound spiritual crises as their profession takes its toll on them. Still others lack even the vestiges of a soul, transformed into (sometimes literal) killing machines. With the latest Bourne movie hitting theaters this week, we thought we’d take a look at some of the greatest hired killers ever put on screen. As always, we welcome your thoughts on the subject. If there’s anyone we missed or overlooked, sound off in the comments section and let us know!
Honorable mentions go to Jason Bourne, Chev Chelios, Mitch Leary, Julian Nobel, Michael Sullivan, various flavors of El Mariachi, and the entire cast of Wanted.
Cruise does best when he taps into his creepier side… never moreso than his turn as a single-minded hit man in Michael Mann’s terrific Collateral. His business-like demeanor forms his greatest asset; you think you can negotiate with this guy right up until the moment he puts a bullet between your eyes. Only when he pushes one of his unwilling accomplices to the brink does he start to unravel… which, of course, makes him even more dangerous.
The first of our “clinical death machines” on the list, Edward Fox’s Jackal presents the coolest false front imaginable. Indeed, it may not be a front at all: a perfect lack of personality that keeps the authorities baffled until the very last minute. That very passivity renders him chillingly memorable as he sets out to assassinate Charles De Gaulle, bringing a touch of verite to an already frighteningly plausible scenario.
The only overtly comedic killer on this list, Martin Blank nonetheless goes through the same crisis of conscience that befalls a number of cinematic hit men. Except in Grosse Pointe Blank, it’s filtered through the perplexed cynicism of Generation X. Blank has few problems with what he does – as he says, his victims usually did something pretty awful to bring him to their door – but his profession stems from lack of purpose rather than any real ideology. He needs something else to believe in… which his high school reunion and the girl he left behind ultimately provide in spades.
Ghost Dog never suffers a crisis of faith; his code of honor prevents it. Rather than depending on the compromise and corruption of the present, he turns to the ancient code of Bushido to govern his actions. He never wavers and he never compromises – admirable tendencies in his profession – but more importantly, he never doubts. The code dictates his every decision, making him the most serene and accepting assassin you’ll ever see.
Costello appears in director Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece Le Samourai, and follows the same pattern as many other figures on this list: neat, meticulous, a thorough planner, and devoid of even the barest pretense of personality. His apartment is a blank cypher populated only by a bird in a cage. Like Ghost Dog, he also follows the code of the samurai. Unlike his colleague, it offers him no sense of fulfillment… only a guide that allows him to function. It might as well be stereo instructions to him, though it certainly doesn’t make him any less dangerous a combatant.
There’s something disturbingly amiable about Quentin Tarantino’s mid-level icemen. They chat like coworkers in any profession, discussing the European burgers and the vagaries of foot massages as if they were standing around a water cooler. The only thing that differentiates them from the rest of us? They have no problems shooting people. Jules eventually renounces the life, but he doesn’t do so because he believes killing is wrong. He just decided that God didn’t want him to. At least he heeds the apparent warning signs. Vincent ignores them… and ultimately pays the price.
Nikita has proven such a pop culture icon that she spawned three additional incarnations (played by Bridget Fonda, Peta Wilson and Maggie Q). As with most things, however, the first is still the best. Anne Parillaud invests the strung-out thief-turned-government-agent with the perfect mixture of vulnerability, streetwise attitude and survivor’s toughness. We’ve ranked three other killers ahead of her, but in a head-to-head match-up with any of them, we wouldn’t readily bet against her.
Leon’s robotic behavior resembles that of numerous other movie hit men. But in this case, it conceals a surprisingly child-like soul: someone who believes whatever his handler tells him and takes joy at guessing games with his surrogate daughter Mathilda (Natalie Portman). She proves exactly what he needs to reawaken his humanity: a damaged child forced to grow up too soon, who sees in him all the things she lost.
The stone-cold killer in No Country for Old Men looks like a walking joke, with his oddball stare and Beatlemania haircut. Only when he has his victims at his mercy do they realize how dangerous he is. He offers them an out that Harvey Dent would most definitely approve of: it stinks, but as he himself notes, it at least gives them the chance that his skills too easily deny them.
Relentless. Passive. Robotic. So many movie killers carry those traits, but none of them are actually the machines they resemble… except for one. With the T-800, Arnold Schwarzenegger found the perfect embodiment of his star persona, as well as an assassin second-to-none who literally spends every minute of every day thinking about how to destroy his target. Other killers emulate his implacable purpose, but none of them can surpass him. They are, after all, only human: a weakness that Cyberdyne’s most infamous minion never had to worry about.