The Top 7 Cinematic Assassins
By Tom WoodNovember 7, 2018
Tom Wood, author of the Kill For Me, presents his top seven big-screen assassins. Make sure to comment for a chance to win!
Although I’m a writer of novels, one of the most common compliments I receive from my readers is that my books are very cinematic. This is deliberate because when I’m writing a scene, I can see it playing out in my head like a movie and I want the reader to “see” it too. I expect a large part of this comes down to the fact I grew up watching films, not reading books. I’m not sure there was even a book in my house until I bought one myself. Given that my series is about a professional killer and cinema was my main early influence, it seems fitting to list my seven favorite cinematic assassins.
Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is one of my favorite films. It came out in that mid-90s era where we saw a lot of second-rate Tarantino-esque crime capers, yet this film holds its own thanks to razor-sharp dialogue and a brilliant ensemble. Amongst many stellar performances including Christopher Walken as the quadriplegic Man with the Plan and Treat Williams as the unhinged Critical Bill, Steve Buscemi shines as hitman Mr. Shhh, so named because he “won’t say three words unless you beg him.” What makes Mr. Shhh so memorable is that he is so unassuming, so ordinary, that when he springs into action his deadly prowess is completely unexpected. Beyond that, he’s a fully fleshed out character who we see intervene to stop a racially-motivated assault and show a degree of mercy to one of the targets he’s been ordered to kill in the most painful way possible, yet still take pleasure in killing. Also, despite incredible gunmanship and skill in hand-to-hand combat, he is caught out by a relatively simple trick. He’s both moral and immoral, lethal and vulnerable.
No list of killers would be complete without Nikita from La Femme Nikita, which was remade as Point of No Return (aka The Assassin). Nikita (and Maggie in the remake) is a wayward junkie criminal given a second chance to put herself on the right track. That track, however, turns out to be undergoing training as an assassin as part of a secret government program. Why said program needs junkies instead of military-trained personnel is a question best not considered, but Nikita is a relatable character more grounded in reality than most of the killers on this list. We’re on her side and willing her to succeed through the many trials put before her. We also get to see Jean Reno in a role that would inspire both the actor and director to recreate his character for The Professional a few years later. Which, speaking of…
It probably wouldn’t surprise many people to see The Professional (aka Leon) on this list, but my unconventional inclusion to this list is Natalie Portman’s character, Mathilda. Many people would put Leon himself on this kind of list, but his character is a bit too saccharine sweet for my tastes. Mathilda, however, steals the show as the grieving young girl who witnessed her family’s brutal murder. She’s saved from death by Leon, who goes on to train her in the ways of his trade because she is determined to seek revenge on Gary Oldman’s crazed police officer for killing her brother. She’s not so bothered about the rest of her family. Mathilda is a powerful, compelling character, forced to mature before her time. Amazingly, Portman was just twelve years old when she acted across Jean Reno. And though the film ends with Mathilda going to school and turning away from her previous wish to “clean” like Leon, we can’t help but wonder what might have happened had she stayed the course. In fact, I’d like to see that sequel made with the adult Portman reprising her breakthrough role twenty-odd years later.
I went to see No Country for Old Men with no idea what the film would be about. In fact, from its title, I expected it to be pretty boring. Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh ensured that my prediction was way off. Chigurh is an almost mythical antagonist, able to materialize without warning and disappear without detection. Unlike Mr. Shhh, Chigurh shows no hint of emotion, no sliver of decency; he is an out-and-out killer. We witness him dispatch many people, some as part of his work and some because they’re simply in his way. If he wasn’t paid to hunt people down, we could safely assume he would be doing it regardless for his own pleasure. Chigurh is a pure psychopath who is humorless, cruel, and vindictive, yet he’s so relentless, such a robotic murderer, we can’t help but be as impressed with him as we are terrified.
Another nineties classic is Grosse Pointe Blank which features John Cusack as Martin Blank—a hitman returning to his hometown for his high school’s ten-year reunion. Funny, poignant, heart-warming, silly, and exhilarating, Grosse Pointe Blank is almost a genre to itself. Cusack excels as a world-weary professional killer taking stock of his life and trying to reignite an old romance, whilst also avoiding enemies who want him dead and putting off a job he needs to complete. As he admits, he likes the clothes and the lifestyle of his profession but also goes to therapy because he’s so dispassionate about it. He’s the most likeable killer on this list, yet he’s as much as a badass as any other, making notably deadly use of a pen. Blank’s nemesis Grosser deserves an honorable mention here, played to hilarious effect by Dan Aykroyd.
Talking of writing implements, John Wick is next up in the eponymously titled action flick. I have a love/hate relationship with John Wick given there are more than a few stylistic similarities between my series and these films. Unlike Victor, John Wick isn’t an anti-hero. We’re told many times how scary and deadly John Wick was, but we see him act purely as a wronged hero out for revenge. Not only has his wife died but now his dog has been killed, and this double-whammy tragedy ensures we are completely, utterly on his side as he wages a one-man war against the Russian mafia. There’s not much else to John Wick’s character than this, although the strange underworld he resides in, with its gold coins and unbreakable rules, has plenty of charm. What gives Wick a place on this list is the superb fight choreography that demonstrates his incredible talents in what can only be described as ballistic ballet. However, despite Wick slaying dozens upon dozens of heavily-armed gunmen ready and waiting for him, we’re asked to believe three unskilled thugs get the drop on him in his own home.
While Bryan Mills is never actually identified as a former assassin, there are more than enough hints for us to be under no doubt as to his profession in the years before the events of Taken. He tells his daughter that he was a “preventer” for the CIA, and although we’re never told what he prevented, from the way he tears through a gang of human traffickers, it’s clear how he went about preventing. We’re first introduced to Bryan as an awkward divorcee struggling to connect with his daughter. When she is kidnapped in Paris, he wastes no time flying across the Atlantic to track her down. In this pursuit, he’s ruthless and unforgiving, willing to do absolutely anything it takes to save his daughter, including some things not entirely necessary: electrocuting a kidnapper to death springs to mind. He may not have some of the complexity of some of my other choices, but his single-minded tenacity and brutally effective combat skills mean he’s a clear choice for this list.
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