David Fincher’s quietly cool, slight but atmospheric hitman thriller The Killer landed on Netflix last week and has shot to the top of the streaming charts thanks to a well-cast icily efficient Michael Fassbender who offers some cynical but pertinent dissections of the ennui at the heart of our digitally obsessed society.It’s a film that breathes some solidly intriguing life into the hitman genre, which has proved such an attraction for filmmakers across the generations. Here are three films from the vaults that offer their own unique take on the killer for hire genre with distinctive style and a keen eye for the emotional turmoil that are the inevitable reality of a life lived in service to murder.
THE ARTHOUSE ESSENTIAL:
The American — Rent or buy from Apple TV +
George Clooney stars in this slow-moving, elegantly realised tale of assassin ennui directed by Anton Corbijn from 2010.
Clooney plays unflappable, ice-cold hitman Jack, who after a botched job in Sweden, retreats to the quietly picturesque Italian countryside in search of anonymity and emotional recharge.
What begins as if it may be a globe-trotting high octane action caper soon becomes a more introspective and distinctly European style drama that’s firmly retro in its look and feel and anti-blockbuster intent. Jack arrives in a remote Italian village where he’s supposed to be escaping his paranoia and focusing on the job of making a high power, untraceable rifle for a contract but soon finds himself smitten by the beauty of a local prostitute and the curiosity of a philosophical local priest.
Corbijn pushes all the traditional questions of the genre to the side as we become less interested in who Jack is, what he’s done and who might want to kill him, than we do in just watching him try to have the kind of comfortable middle-class life we’re all expected to fetishise. As we become increasingly convinced that maybe love, the charms of the Italian countryside and some soulful introspection may just save him, Corbijn reminds us that sometimes the price of a life spent in the service of cold inhumanity may be one that you can’t so easily beg a moral payment plan for.
Beautifully photographed with a strong appreciation for the emotional power of silence it’s a slight but satisfyingly ambiguous assassin film that’s more interested in feeling than it is technical fetishisation or gruesome murderous stylistic high-jinks.
THE STONE COLD CLASSIC:
Blast of Silence — YouTube
Director Allen Baron’s rough and gritty noir was shot on location in the grimy shadow streets of New York and offers a suitably cynical assessment of the mind of a hitman. Played by Baron, the film’s not so much anti-hero as nastily amoral low-life, Cleveland mobster Frankie Bono arrives in the Big Apple for a snowy Christmas that will see him celebrating with the successful completion of another contract. When an old friend unexpectedly appears and some local toughs threaten him with extortion, Frankie is thrown into crisis and begins to wonder if maybe the whole hitman thing isn’t really his bag any more.
Written by Waldo Salt, a victim of the shameful anti-communist blacklist in the 1950s, who would go on to write Midnight Cowboy, Serpico and Coming Home — three of the biggest films of the 1970s New Wave — it’s a pioneeringly honest attempt to reflect on the darker side of the morality of men making their lives in the business of murder. Bono’s hard-boiled, free associative interior monologue offers a timely beat-poetry inspired examination of his soul, or at least what’s left of it, as he spends an existentially ridden week trying to get out of town before he’s found dead on one of its alleyways. Overly ambitious perhaps, but nevertheless commendable for its dedication to trying to do something different with its genre and reflect something of the growing social and psychological uncertainty of its time, it’s a film that’s quietly grown over the decades in cult appreciation and influence.
THE DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH:
Collateral — Netflix
A dark, tautly realised entry into the assassin for hire genre from master of the dark LA streets Michael Mann, this excellently visualised and tightly controlled neo-noir from 2004 features a memorably villainous and against-type performance from Tom Cruise and the able support of Jamie Foxx. Cruise plays grey-haired, sharply tailored hitman Vincent who arrives in town for a planned night of efficient elimination and hires Foxx’s unsuspecting cab driver Max who slowly realises that he’s not driving around an out-of-towner looking to explore the nightlife but a ruthless killer making his way from mark to mark on his hit list.
Part hitman thriller, part seedy LA nightlife travelogue and always distinctively creative thanks to Mann’s singular eye for the quiet poetry of the city at night, it’s both a propulsive watchable action film and a solid rumination on the icy indifference to death needed to be the kind of assassin who can slip into town for a night, kill a series of unsuspecting victims and disappear on the redeye before anyone has noticed.