The 10 Greatest Movie Hitmen of All Time

[4 October 2011]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

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:

# 10 - Burke (John Lithgow) : Blow Out

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.

# 9 - Wesley Allan Gibson (James McAvoy) : Wanted

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.

# 8 - Charlie and Irene (Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner) : Prizzi’s Honor

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.’

# 7 - Clemenza (Richard Castellano): The Godfather

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.

# 6 - The Bride (Uma Thurman): Kill Bill

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!

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# 5 - Jason Bourne (Matt Damon): The Bourne Trilogy

Smart, savage, and still unsure about how he became so, our walking wounded amnesiac with a skill at keeping several steps ahead of those who’d want to silence him forever sits in the center of our list for only one reason - the often implausible way in which he gets himself out of jam after jam. Indeed, when push comes to shove, Jason B. seems forever capable of finding the only loophole in the otherwise fail safe scenario. Thanks to the performance of Matt Damon, such coincidental conveniences become all the easier to believe. His combination of wholesomeness and reckless violent disregard gives us plenty to root for.

# 4 - Leon (Jean Reno): Leon

He’s a “cleaner” by trade, a lonely man living a solitary life in service of a local Italian kingpin. Aside from a wilting houseplant and the buzz of his TV screen, this ‘professional’ has little to get excited about. But when a rogue federal agent kills the family of a young girl, our unlikely hero takes her under his wing and shows her the ropes of revenge. Reno, a famous face in his French homeland, announced his presence to American audience thanks to this beloved Luc Besson effort. When DVD delivered a definitive cut of the film, the power in the actor’s performance was made all the more clear.

# 3 - Jeffrey (Chow Yun Fat): The Killer

As the title entity, a jazz loving (and playing) assassin with a soul as deep as his killing skill, he’s almost heroic. As with many stories like this, there is a cop on his tail, as well as a girl whose blindness was a direct result of his actions. The need for money (for some experimental surgery) and the call of his career choice bring our pro to a choice church stand-off, one of the best firefight sequences ever committed to celluloid. This was the movie that introduced John Woo to Western genre fans, as well as highlighting the work of his favorite leading man. Along with Hard-Boiled, this remains one of the best foreign action films of the era.

# 2 - Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem): No Country for Old Men

With his bowl meets Beatles haircut and unusual speaking style, you’d never guess that this was one of the most merciless and maniacal murderers ever. With a laser like focus to recapture a cache of drug money and a pneumatic bolt pistol in hand, he is indeed walking death. As played by Spanish stud Bardem, the Coen Brothers took a risk. With his matinee idol looks and sturdy sexual appeal, there had to be a pretty amazing performance given to capture the cruelty in Chigurh’s calculated cruelty.  The actor delivered, and was rewarded with a well-deserved Oscar for his efforts.

# 1 - Vincent and Jules (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson): Pulp Fiction

As partners in crime and pals in most predicaments, this delightful duo making whacking people seem almost poetic. Jules, in particular, enjoys serenading his targets with a bravura Bible quote while Vincent numbs the pain with heroin. Granted, they aren’t the greatest at making sure they leave a scene unscathed (just as the fixer, Winston Wolf) but they manage to get the job done. As personified by an equally winning pair of actors, the comic killers here turned Tarantino’s love letter to crime into a mix of post-modern critique and cinematic memento. You’ll never look at a milkshake, or a car’s backseat, the same way again.

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