Why are we so obsessed with hitmen? Sure, you’ll find thousands of movies about cops, soldiers, lawyers and thieves, but is there another job where so few people do it, yet so many films are made about them? Being a real-life assassin isn’t glamorous. It isn’t even a nice profession. Where Hollywood and the video games industry could be celebrating doctors or teachers or engineers, they’d rather focus on people who kill other people in cold blood.
Yet it seems hitmen never go out of style. They’re hugely popular in books, TV programmes, comic-books, movies and games. They’re on TV (Killing Eve), and in the cinema, in action movies (John Wick, The Mechanic, Leon), comedies (In Bruges, Grosse Point Blank, The Whole Nine Yards), arty thrillers (Killing Them Softly, Collateral, The American, Hanna) and foreign-language breakout hits (La Femme Nikita, The Killer, The Villainess). Even when they retire and stop killing they still take centre stage – see the Bourne movies and Road To Perdition.
Why? Partly it’s because the hitman covers so many narrative requirements. Watching doctors, teachers and engineers at work wouldn’t often make for exhilarating cinema; most jobs simply aren’t that interesting, hour by hour. The hitman’s job, in contrast, involves action by definition. It might have its long dull stretches, true, but nothing a good montage can’t fix. One man or woman killing another man or woman (or a whole bunch of them) is nearly always going to be dramatic, whether it takes the form of a long, well-planned mission or a fast-paced, deadly assault.
We also like professional killers because we like to watch an expert at work – and even more so when that expertise involves cool stuff. Think of all those scenes where a hitman has to extract a sniper rifle from an aluminium briefcase then twist and lock all the parts in place, or the sequences where the killer waits out of sight in an isolated high position, training their sights on a head half a mile away. Whether they’re planting explosives, donning a disguise or bursting into a gang hideout and killing everyone inside, we enjoy the hitman’s studied precision and superhuman skill.
In fact, we love it when they do something virtually impossible, or turn the toughest gangster into a pleading crybaby. You can see this in John Wick, Kill Bill, the Bourne movies or John Woo’s The Killer – and even in artier fare like Anton Corbijn’s The American. You could say we get the same buzz from a great hitman action scene that audiences had from watching Gene Kelly dance or Buster Keaton pull off slapstick pratfalls. When you’re watching John Wick tear his way through a clandestine nightclub, you’re watching a virtuoso performer at work.
And even when they’re up to no good, we identify with these figures. In a way, being the super-tough, unstoppable, pitiless professional is as potent a power fantasy as being a superhero. In some cases – Deadpool, Suicide Squad’s Deadshot, Black Widow, Angelina Jolie’s Fox in Wanted – there’s no real distinction between the two.
You can feel this sometimes when you’re playing Agent 47 in a Hitman game. His supernatural reflexes put him beyond the guards that try to hold him back. His ability to assimilate and hide in plain sight give him a chameleon like ability to get wherever he needs to go. The consummate assassin, he does what lesser killers can’t – and in more style. The normal rules do not apply.
Sympathy for the devil
Of course, with a hitman hero life isn’t always easy; when your protagonist’s main job is killing people, writers and directors have to use a few tricks to keep the audience on side. Often the killer is someone who wants out of the business, or who’s been dragged back in for one last hit. In John Cusack’s Grosse Point Blank, Martin Blank is an exhausted assassin on the edge of a breakdown, trying to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend and his childhood best friend. Jason Bourne has done some quite unsavoury things, but he’s a man in pain over his awful past. When he kills in the movies, it’s nearly always in self-defence. Even Chow Yun-fat’s Jeff in The Killer is only doing one last job to save the vision of the singer he blinded – and who he’s come to love.
Far from remorseless, the heroic hitman is often damaged by the past or secretly sentimental. Leon is a killer in his day-job, but a soft-hearted dreamer in his private life, crying at musicals and unable to resist Mathilda’s call for help. While the Hitman series’ Agent 47 is a colder, more calculating killer, he still abides by a code of honour, showing compassion, humour and a sense of irony along the way. And remember, who he is, is not his fault – he was made this way.
Notice, too, how rarely the screen hitman’s victim is an innocent or entirely undeserving. Criminals, gang bosses, thugs and hoodlums, there’s nearly always a sense that they have it coming. It’s a classic movie cliché, but if someone’s doing something evil in act one, you can be sure they’ll meet a violent demise at the hands of the hitman by the end of act three.
Let’s face it: many on-screen hitmen are kind-of cool, following a template set by Alain Delon in Jean Pierre-Melville’s La Samourai of the monk-like loner, dedicated to their work and either possessed of a zen-like calm or riddled with stylised existential angst. They like cool music, wear cool suits and never utter two words where no words will do. That doesn’t just go for the men, either. Killing Eve’s Villanelle might be a sadistic and remorseless psychopath, never tired of playing with her targets, but it’s hard not to love her for her rebellious can-do attitude. And do you see the clothes she gets to wear?
Whether they’re heroes or anti-heroes, we admire the hitman’s cool detachment. Even when they’re villains, like The Jackal or Collateral’s Vincent, we find them fascinating. Take Javier Bardem’s horrific Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. He says little and is completely psychotic, yet he’s utterly mesmerising on the screen. Who else could be that terrifying with that hair?
Perhaps most of all, we love the hitman because he’s a vehicle for cathartic violence. The hitman doesn’t take an insult lying down or a grievance go unpunished – he or she murders whoever’s responsible, and usually in spectacular style. The hitman doesn’t get bullied without responding or taking revenge. And where other people see problems, the hitman sees simple solutions, usually involving a bullet, a knife or an improbable ‘accident’ that leaves the target dead. When we play one of the Hitman games, we don’t just love the game for the action or the story, but the way they allow us to play around with different, often comic forms of ultraviolence in a playground designed just for that. These works don’t play into our better natures, but you could argue that they provide a safe place for our worst natures to work themselves out.