When, exactly, did the hired killer become cool? Before the advent of the assassin as superhero, the media made these contract cretins out to be exactly what they were/are - murderous madmen (and occasionally, women) without a moral compass or a compassionate bone in their blood spattered body. As the money-oriented muscle for their various ‘bosses,’ they belied a basic human desire (vigilante justice) while doing so in a highly questionable manner. And yet, in 2011, the hitman is a cultural icon, a legitimate lynchpin to all manner of entertainment types. From action to drama, comedy to something more complicated, these thugs generate as much buzz and dead bodies.
Of course, picking the cream of the cinematic crop in this category requires a bit of historical hindsight. While there have been interesting killers in the past (Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death. for example), we are keeping our choices restricted to the ‘60s through now. This way, we can address the coming of age of the paid assassin. Similarly, we will deal with both the effectiveness of the character as well as the quality of the actor’s performance. Finally, we have grouped together those who are inseparable, either narratively or acknowledged as part of movie mythology. The result is a collection of 12 game Grim Reapers who seemingly enjoy their work, if not the dead end dimension of the occupation, beginning with a beguiling bad guy that many may have forgotten:
He’s the Lee Harvey Oswald to John Travolta’s sonic Abraham Zapruder, the soft-spoken yet very calculated killer who’s trying to guarantee a win for the other side… by any means necessary. Few knew Lithgow when he made this appearance in DePalma’s political thriller. Though he had appeared in the director’s Obsession, and had a memorable moment as a rival stage genius in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, it was the ruthless role of Burke that announced bigger and better things for the theater ace. Indeed, within two years, Lithgow was nominated by the Academy for Best Supporting Actor - twice. He should have got a nod for this amazing turn as well.
He’s a wallflower wimp in a corporate cubicle, a mealy mouthed medicated nerd who suddenly discovers he’s part of an ancient order of assassins. A few forced torture training sessions later and our spineless loser becomes one of the deadliest killing machines ever. McAvoy may seem like an unusual choice to play a super spy, especially one given over the almost magical powers, but the truth is that nothing in this brilliant adaptation of the graphic novels is what it seems. We expect the same old action genre beats. We end up with something as mind-blowing as The Matrix.
He’s an old school hitman for the mob. She’s the new talent brought in for a specific job. Instead of setting each other up and rubbing each other out, however, they end up falling in love. Only when true loyalty is tested do the wedding rings come off and the handguns come out. Critics were either charmed or irritated by Nicholson’s mannered turn here, his voice a lunkhead version of a long abandoned Italian stereotype, but Turner is all sex and sinister allure. Together, they provide the perfect partnership - brains and beauty vs. brawn, contemporary callousness vs. a lifelong desire to remain ‘made.’
How can you not love a gunman who mandates that the evidence be left behind, but that the bakery fresh cannolis go with him? As the big fat foolhardy muscle for the Corleone family, Clemenza is the lifelong link to the mafia’s immigrant past pushed into the cutthroat world of the modern Cosa Nostra. As played by Castellano in what would be a career defining turn, he’s a larger than life effigy that may not look threatening, but who can deliver the necessary death sentence when ordered to do so. A man of massive appetites, Clemenza’s dedication to his friends is as vast as his ample waistband.
Perhaps the most proficient of all the assassins on this list, she walks into any situation - a one on one with the man who ordered her dead, an entire Japanese nightclub filled with sword wielding villains - and comes out the winner, bloody, but better than those who chose to stand and fight. Though her previous career as part of the Deadly Vipers gang is shrouded in semi-mystery, her proficiency with a weapon is crystal clear. For Thurman, already established as part of Tarantino’s camp via her work in Pulp Fiction, “Black Mamba” represented a chance to play off the paternalistic nature of the action film - and she simply soared!