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The Hit List.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

MAY 4, 1998:  Why are professional assassins such objects of '90s cinematic obsession? From foreign films (La Femme Nikita) to off-kilter black comedies like The Big Hit to plain ol' Hollywood muscle flicks (Assassins), the cineplexes and video shelves are full of movies about men and women who get paid to kill. Usually, there's some pretense of moral anguish—the hitman with a heart of gold has become as ubiquitous as his hooker counterpart. (Hey, what if we had a hitman and a hooker team up? I'm calling my agent...)

There are probably many reasons for this—depending on whether you're liberal or conservative, you could make a case that mercenary murderers represent the logical end of either rampaging capitalism or moral relativism—but the most likely one is that killers for hire are inherently a lot more interesting than stockbrokers.

One of the best and most straightforward treatments of the theme is the small-scale 1985 movie The Hit (R). Directed by Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons), it follows a passionless hitman as he escorts a mob informant from Spain back to England, where the informant will be executed. John Hurt and Terence Stamp are terrific in the leads, and a young Tim Roth lends pathos as a hitman-in-training who can't stomach the realities of the job. The film is morally ambiguous, as you'd expect, but surprisingly affecting.

Luc Besson, who directed La Femme Nikita, returned to the subject with his American debut, The Professional (1994, R). Jean Reno stars as an introverted assassin who ends up as the caretaker of an orphaned 12-year-old girl. It's a gimmicky set-up, and the film is as oddly sentimental as it is explosively violent. But it works pretty well, thanks to the pairing of Reno's quiet angst and Besson's frenetic pacing. Plus, Gary Oldman gives the most over-the-top of all his over-the-top bad guy performances.

Some of the best hitman flicks arise from mistaken identity scenarios: People think some poor schnook is an assassin, and he can't convince them otherwise. It's the basis for both Red Rock West (1993, R) and the low-budget wonder El Mariachi (1992, R). In the former, a rootless Nicolas Cage drifts into a small-town murder scheme and has to contend with a sleazy J.T. Walsh, a slinky Lara Flynn Boyle, and a suitably schizoid Dennis Hopper. The plot turns on some unconvincing coincidences, but the film's sharp cast and moody setting make up for them. El Mariachi concerns a traveling musician mistaken for a legendary killer. It's funnier, faster, and more imaginative than its higher-budget sequel, Desperado.

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