Stephen Arnell

Assassins on screen: from Phoebe Waller-Bridge to Samuel L. Jackson

Assassins on screen: from Phoebe Waller-Bridge to Samuel L. Jackson
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After Killing Eve, Phoebe Waller-Bridge goes back again to the contract killer well with her upcoming TV re-boot of the 2005 Brad Pitt/Angelina actioner Mr & Mrs Smith.

Waller-Bridge will write and co-star with Atlanta’s Donald Glover, who also featured with her in the underwhelming Star Wars prequel Solo (2018). Could this be third time lucky for a TV take on the uxorious assassins?

We’ve already had a 1996 series that predated the movie (starring Scott Bakula and Maria Bello) and a 2007 show that never went beyond Doug Liman’s (who also directed the 2005 picture) pilot movie – with Martin Henderson and Jordana Brewster as the titular couple.

Over recent years there's been a growing trend for dramas based on the exploits of contract killers - in fact it's now approaching the 'missing child' trope in ubiquity. In addition to the Mr and Mrs Smith remake, there are two new series in the works; Hulu are taking a crack at an adaptation of the video game Hitman (this after two failed movies), whilst Starz are prepping the John Wick companion piece The Continental.

In terms of motion pictures, there’s a wealth of movies to choose from, with sub-tropes including black comedies (Grosse Point Blank), comic-book fantasy (Deadpool, Wanted – Jolie as a hitwoman again), political (The Day of the Jackal, Vantage Point), sci-fi (Blade Runner, The Terminator franchise), period (The Assassination Bureau*, La Reine Margot), real life (JFK, The Assassination of Trotsky) and existential drama (The Killers, Le Samourai).

Here's my pick of the best:

The John Wick Trilogy (2014 – Amazon Rent/Buy, 2017 – Amazon Rent/Buy, 2019 – Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy)

Keanu Reeves’ master assassin John Wick is referred to by colleagues and enemies as the fearsome ‘Baba Yaga’. Which is OK as far as it goes, but Baba Yaga is actually a Slavic folk tale character – a dishevelled crone who lives in a unique mobile home – a hut propelled by giant chicken legs. So, I can’t really see the connection with the immaculately tailored Wick, who tends to favour American muscle cars as a means of transportation.

The story, such as it is, involves retired hitman Wick dragged back into his former life when the spoilt son of a Russian crime lord (Iosef Tarasov -Alfie Allan) kills his puppy.  Hyper-kinetic fight scenes propel the action along, with the occasional interval for the likes of Ian ‘Lovejoy’ McShane to spout exposition and tell the audience more about the mythos of the ‘Wick-verse’.

Good fun though, if you’re in the mood for it. Two more sequels, plus the afore-mentioned TV series are in the pipeline. Enough to satisfy the most ardent fan.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017) – Amazon Prime, Amazon Rent/Buy

This generic comedy-thriller coasts on the charm of leads Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson and Salma Hayek to keep viewers onboard with the ‘seen it all before’ shenanigans, playing like a mash-up of Red, The Other Guys (2010) and further back Midnight Run (1988).

In the same year as his Academy Award winning role as Churchill in The Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman turns up to collect his cheque and try another stab (after Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Child 44) at an Eastern European accent as villainous former dictator Vladislav Dukhovich.

The picture made enough money at the box office to warrant a sequel, the imaginatively titled The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard, which is due for release this August.

Anthropoid (2016) – Amazon Rent/Buy

The superior of two movies released within a year (the other being The Man with the Iron Heart) about the assassination in 1942 of Reinhard Heydrich - architect of the Final Solution, and Reichsprotector of German–occupied Czechoslovakia. Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan star as two of the Czech govt-in-exile agents parachuted in to take out the Nazi leader.

Heydrich dies of wounds after a chaotic attack on his limousine, prompting the Germans to take a brutal vengeance on both the Czechoslovakian Resistance and blameless civilians, eventually hunting the surviving assassins down to Prague’s Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral where they make a corpse-laden last stand.

The Mechanic (2011) – Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

I confess to rather enjoying Jason Statham’s pacey remake of Michael Winner’s serviceable 1972 Charles Bronson thriller. The actor sticks to what he does best – and surrounds himself with decent talent, including Donald Sutherland, Ben Foster and Tony Goldwyn.

Statham plays Arthur Bishop, the mechanic of the movie’s title, a skilled assassin with a taste for Schubert who possesses his own (admittedly warped) code of honour.  When he takes on Foster’s bolshie Steve McKenna as his apprentice, things begin to go awry.

Kill List (2011) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Not a movie for the faint of heart, Ben (Free Fire) Wheatley’s Kill List sees the hitman genre collide with folk horror as two ex-servicemen are contracted to hunt down their mysterious client’s human targets in South Yorkshire.

Wheatley regulars Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley play Jay and Gal, the increasingly reluctant assassins.

A disturbing supernatural thriller that warns us that it’s not only in remote Scottish islands and inaccessible moorland villages that such events can occur.

Headhunters (2011) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Morten Tyldum’s excellent adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s novel of the same name keeps viewers guessing almost until the final frame.

Aksel Hennie’s (The Martian) insecure executive recruitment consultant/art thief Roger Brown comes a cropper when he crosses paths with arrogant special forces veteran Clas Greve (GoT’s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), initiating a bloody battle of wits between the pair. Thankfully, no-one has yet remade Headhunters as an English language movie.

In Bruges (2008) – STARZPLAY, Amazon Rent/Buy

Martin McDonagh’s feature film debut is a great (and very rewatchable) picture, with pitch black humour and terrific acting from the central trio of eccentric criminals played by Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes.

Farrell is young hitman Ray, unknowingly gifted with a few days pre-Crimbo holiday in the Belgian city of Bruges before his execution for accidentally killing a child during a job, ordered by oddly principled boss Harry (Fiennes) and to be carried out by Ray’s holiday companion, the affable Ken (Gleeson).

The atmospheric medieval Flanders town becomes another character in the movie, with evening mist, rippling canals and muffled street lighting all adding to its melancholy charm, aided by a haunting score by Carter Burwell.

The Bourne film series

The key difference in the movies from Robert Ludlum’s potboiler source material is that Bourne (Matt Damon) is an actual assassin, rather than a US agency operative only masquerading as one.

Incidentally, Richard Chamberlain (then 54 years old) was the first actor to play Bourne, in a 1988 ABC TV movie.

Damon put his all into training for the role, as can be seen from the bone-crunching action sequences in all of his Bourne appearances.

For me, the first movie in the series (Doug Liman’s Identity) looks less dated than the two immediate Greengrass sequels, where the jerky handheld camerawork and speed freak editing quickly became a cliché when adopted by less talented filmmakers.

Greengrass’s first two pictures were an influence on the style of Daniel Craig’s debut as 007 in Casino Royale (2006, directed by Martin Campbell); despite having the same initials, Bourne’s character is one-note compared to not-exactly multi-faceted Bond, which is probably why the producers thought they could dispense with him altogether (aside from a few flashbacks) in 2012’s ho-hum Legacy.

The Matador (2005)

As with the earlier Tailor of Panama (2001), The Matador represented a successful attempt by Pierce Brosnan to both escape and subvert his signature role as James Bond, 007.

Although not always the greatest actor, Brosnan picked up critical praise for his portrayal of Julian Noble, a charmless hitman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Whilst in Mexico City for a contract, Noble strikes up an unlikely friendship with businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) who’s dealing with financial woes and continued grief for his dead son.

Six months later, an agitated Julian turns up unexpectedly at Danny and his wife Bean’s (Hope Davis) Denver house for Christmas…

Collateral (2004) – Amazon Buy

Michael Mann’s neo-noir gave Tom Cruise one of his rare roles as a bad guy, the ice-cold hitman Vincent, whom LA taxi-driver Max (Jamie Foxx) has the misfortune to pick up for a night of extreme violence as the assassin checks off his list of victims. He’s a good tipper though. Collateral is an effective small-scale thriller, which improves on repeated viewing.