There’s always something satisfying about watching a master at work – even when the work is killing someone who may or may not deserve their fate.
State-sponsored killers and hired assassins are at the heart of some of the best action movies and thrillers, and we’ve picked our favourite scenes.
Leon – The opening action scene
If you’re doing a film about a hitman then you need to move fast and establish what a badass they are. And that’s exactly what Luc Besson does with the first scene in Leon, as Jean Reno’s killer surgically eliminates the bodyguards protecting Frank Senger’s ‘Fatman’. Cleverly, Reno spends most of the sequence hidden, emerging from the shadows only to dangle a noose and hoist up a gun-toting flunky or – out of frame – wipe out three of his mates. Even when the Fatman starts spraying bullets, it’s Leon who’s really in control, a knife emerging from the shadows followed by a face and a threat. Like so many movie hitmen, Leon’s part antihero, part bogeyman; the guy you can’t escape from no matter what you do.
The Day Of The Jackal – De Gaul in the sights
Edward Fox is the merciless, amoral assassin in the first adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s thriller, letting nothing get between him and a successful contract on French post-war president, Charles De Gaul. Using a custom-made collapsible sniper rifle, the stone-cold killer does his best to do to the French leader’s head what he’s already demonstrated with some melons earlier in the film – and there’s going to be more to clear up than just the pips. 45 years on Fox’s Jackal is still the epitome of the ruthless, highly-organised hitman, even more so than Bruce Willis in the 1997 remake. The final scene hasn’t lost any of its nail-biting tension.
The Killer – The Dragon Boat Hit
It’s hard to look suave with a stick-on moustache and a sniper rifle, but nothing’s beyond Chow Yun Fat in John Woo’s breakout hit, The Killer. His suited assassin, known in the UK version as Jeff, takes on a gangland hit at the launch of Hong Kong’s dragon boat races, going for the shot as the pounding drums get louder. And as if hitting three shots from a boat at long-range isn’t cool enough, Jeff follows with a speedboat escape and an epic gun battle against an army of thugs, then for an encore takes a wounded nipper to the nearest hospital. This killer’s not exactly stealthy, but nobody else slaughters so many in such extravagant slow-mo style.
Nikita – The Final Test
Luc Besson has a thing for assassins, with Leon a sort of spiritual sequel to his earlier film, La Femme Nikita. The tale of a street girl turned master killer – a French My Fair Lady with a sky-high body count – it’s finest moment might be Nikita’s final test, where her mentor takes her to a glitzy restaurant, presents her with a mysterious box, then orders her to use what’s inside to kill a fellow patron before escaping through a window in the gents. What follows is a genius chunk of action cinema, with cold, calculated shooting, quick thinking and some stomach-knotting narrow escapes. Nikita inspired a whole wave of films about female assassins that continues to this day, as we’ll see just below.
The Villainess – The Wedding Day mission
A South-Korean thriller in the Femme Nikita mould, The Villainess is a riot of blood-crazed set-pieces, close combat and bullet ballet violence, anchored by a sensitive performance by Ok-bin Kim in the title role. Like Nikita, Sook-hee is a woman with a double-life, on the one hand a state-sponsored killer, on the other a blushing romantic hoping for a brighter future. The crisis comes when the two sides clash on Sooh-hee’s wedding day when, in full bridal attire, she’s forced to take on one more hit. Sniping through a ventilation fan into a next-door building is no picnic, especially when you’re just minutes away from taking lifelong vows. And if you think married life means a happy ending? Well, there’s a good fifty minutes of bloodshed still to go.
Collateral – The nightclub scene
It doesn’t take long for taxi driver Max (Jamie Foxx) to work out that Tom Cruise’s Vincent might not be his easiest fare ever. Maybe it’s the bullet-ridden corpse that lands on the cab from an upstairs window. Maybe it’s the way Vincent deals with the two muggers who dare to pinch his briefcase. But to see this killer in his prime, you have to wait for the nightclub scene. With Max almost helpless and two cops on his trail, Vincent calmly works his way through the crowded dancefloor, snapping necks, cracking heads, and slaying flunkies, using the ensuing panic to close-in on his target. A masterpiece of editing and sound design, it shows a chillingly believable professional killer at close quarters.
The Man with the Golden Gun – Introducing Scaramanga
Francisco Scaramanga is the world’s greatest assassin – a killer of such prodigious talent that he hires other killers to attack him just to stay in shape. In the opening sequence of the movie his fiendish pint-sized henchman, Nick Nack, lures a mob killer to Scaramanga’s island paradise secret base. The killer has the gun and Scaramanga’s unarmed, his own golden weapon out of reach on a podium in his dodgy disco suite. But just when you think the dude with the supernumerary nipple’s out of luck, he flicks a switch and turns the tables, sliding acrobatically to grab the gun and popping the gangster in the dome. Scaramanga instantly throws down a claim for being one of James Bond’s greatest villains.
John Wick – The nightclub Gun Fu
Sometimes you can be the silent assassin, sometimes you have to go loud. Iosef Tarasov, heir to a Russian crime syndicate, thinks he’s safe in one of daddy’s nightclubs, but when you’ve killed legendary hitman John Wick’s dog and nicked his car, nothing on Earth will protect you. Wick infiltrates the club, does some wet work in its wetrooms then slaughters an army of goons in the club’s bars and lobbies in a spectacular demonstration of Gun Fu. So what if the hit itself isn’t entirely successful – these red-shirted goons are going to pay for what they did, in style.
The Bourne Identity – The pen is mightier…
As an amnesiac, ex-Assassin, Jason Bourne spends more time killing his ex-colleagues than taking down targets – and they come thick and fast throughout the four films. This early encounter sets the pace, as Bourne fends off a submachine gun-wielding killer bursting through his apartment window in a brutal hand-to-hand fight where a pen is used to wince-inducing purpose. Shot naturally with handheld cameras and cut fast, this is one of the most influential action scenes of the last two decades, though the fight with Jarda from The Bourne Supremacy is a masterpiece, too.
The Gunman – One Shot, Two Kills
The Gunman is a curio, directed by Taken director Pierre Morel and starring method actor Sean Penn in what you’d normally expect to be a Liam Neeson role. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a share of cracking scenes, like the opener where ex-Special Forces shooter, Jim Terrier, takes out a minister and his bodyguard with a single long-range snipe. It’s a tense sequence with a brutal climax, and one that the rest of the movie never quite matches.
Mechanic: Resurrection – The Tower Pool Scene
Adrian Cook, a corporate bigwig with a history of sex trafficking, seems untouchable, living 58 stories up in an impregnable apartment in a downtown Sydney high-rise, constantly surrounded by bodyguards. Not to Jason Statham’s super hit-man, Arthur Bishop. Cook swims daily in a glass pool jutting out from the side of the skyscraper, and we watch as Bishop gains access to an apartment just downstairs, dangles precariously beneath the pool and finds a rather dramatic way to empty it while his target’s swimming. Only Statham can make such nerve-wracking heights and calculated daring look this easy – and this is a classic assassination scene.
Hitman: Blood Money – Curtains Down
Every Hitman game has its share of great kills, but there’s a reason why 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money is such a huge fan favourite. Who can forget the ‘A New Life’ mission where donuts, a clown suit and a rigged barbecue could all be used to kill off a mob-boss-turned-snitch, or ‘You Better Watch Out’ with its all-glass hot-tubs and tempting ledges? Topping them all, though, is ‘Curtains Down’, where you can take out a deeply creepy opera singer and his American diplomat chum. The problem? It all has to happen during a rehearsal of the opera, Tosca. Will Agent 47 swap the prop pistol for a real pistol, causing an ‘accidental’ shooting, or go for a bomb in the lighting and a falling chandelier? The lavish Opera House setting and tasty use of split-screen only add to the violent drama.