There are certain characters that have become inextricably affiliated with art films, or at least films of similar high regard. These characters are often dealing with extreme emotional turmoil and their life journeys raise profound questions about the human condition. But when listing the types of characters that tend to populate movies with praiseworthy artistic sensibilities, hitmen would have a rather lengthy wait before hearing their name mentioned. This is unjust.
Since the golden age of the western, and then into the height of the Warner Gangster movies, we have developed an affinity for outlaws — and hitmen would certainly qualify as such. The idea of centering a film on an antihero who kills people for a living may seem a function of baser exploitation, but the fact is that some truly outstanding films, well deserving of being lauded as works of art, have featured all manner of assassins (and this week’s Killing Them Softly may join their ranks). So how do these films separate themselves from the cheaper action shoot-em-ups that might also revolve around contract killers?
The Duality of Humanizing
The most recognizable difference between a multifaceted, morally ambiguous protagonist, and a reprehensible or one-note killer meant to please the groundlings , is the degree to which the filmmaker humanizes that character. It is a means of adding complexity and, in some cases, uneasy amiability to characters our moral compass should have us rejecting outright. The interesting thing about some of the truly great films about assassins, however, is that the injection of humanity doesn’t have to absolve their sins.
In Luc Besson’s Leon, Jean Reno plays a ruthless hitman who, against his better judgment, takes in the daughter, played by Natalie Portman, of a recently murdered couple. His relationship with Portman allows the audience to forgive him his murderous occupation. Luc Besson adeptly plays with the gray moral standards by having Leon’s twelve-year-old ward discover and accept his profession. Leon’s commitment to protecting her, and indeed to maintaining her happiness, makes him incredibly empathetic and we no longer see him as merely a mass murderer for hire.
But humanizing a character does not always result in a good guy. Take Anton Chigurh in The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. Javier Bardem does an amazing job portraying Chigurh as, not so much an assassin, but as a force of Biblical wrath; something Old Testament that cannot be deterred by any interference from mankind. And yet, the last we see of Chigurh, he’s wounded in a completely boneheaded car accident and limps into the sunset. Do we like Chigurh as a result? No. But this moment makes the monster mortal; adding a layer of nuance and density to that role. It also plays perfectly into the Coens’ darkest of senses of humor.
Watch: Brad Pitt Is The Great American Gangster in 'Killing Them Softly' — TRAILER
Speak The Speech, I Dare You
These two differing tactics for humanizing your hitmen actually coalesce in Pulp Fiction. We do like Jules and Vincent, but we have no illusions about their turpitude. One could argue in fact that the moment we like them most is when they nearly irrevocably screw up that hit by accidentally shooting Marvin in the face. They become more relatable at that point, more human; who hasn’t messed up on the job? However, there is also something to be said for the dialogue elevating a standard and, fittingly, pulpy hitman story.
There is a classic-style ritual to the way particularly Jules carries out his assignments. He recites Bible passages in a slowly building monologue that serves as the victim’s last rites. Is it immensely quotable? Absolutely, but this dialogue isn’t just for spectacle. The pulse of Pulp Fiction is in its language, its vocabulary and specificity of referential jargon. So much of the character-building necessary to make something more of a fimic killer is tied up in what they say and how they say it. Actions may speak louder than words, but ask yourself this question: once Jules is done delivering his thunderous sermon, do we ever see one bullet enter the victim to whom he is preaching?
Death: The Ultimate Punchline
Let us again examine the Coens and their, shall we say, advanced sense of humor, which tends to turn up in even the most somber of situations. Fargo is absolutely a comedy, and astonishingly we even find ourselves laughing at hitman Steve Buscemi in a wood chipper. There is something to be said for these darkly comedic approaches allowing us to subconsciously deal more directly with our own mortality. We laugh at death to take at least an ounce out of the sting of its inevitability.
Similarly, we are given leave to laugh at death in films like In Bruges and Grosse Point Blank, two fundamentally great films about assassins. The wisecracking, sometimes farcical hitmen we see in such films don’t just aid in our unspoken coping with the big sleep. These films are great because the universal themes our more flawed hitters represent make them more organic and tangible. We might not be able to say we’ve ever collected on a death contract, but bad vacations and the discomfort of a high school reunion? Those are obstacles we’ve had to check off our own hit list.
Again, by the according-to-Hoyle notions of right and wrong, assassins are less than exemplary, but that does not necessarily mean they are bereft of honor. What tends to account for the elevated auteur nature of the truly great cinematic hitmen is their adherence to their own personal codes. Leon’s number one rule would be echoed by many hitters in films both prior to and following Besson’s film: no women, no kids. It’s may be a simple edict, but the moral divide between audience and criminal protagonist shrinks considerably at its employment.
But these codes can often be stricter and more elaborate. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai tells the story of a French killer who abided by a Spartan, or rather Samurai, existence free of all extravagance. Another killer who followed closely to the ancient Bushido was Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog. These are characters that live outside the law, but their self-imposed ethics make them respectable. The demise of these characters usually follows a rare lapse in their abiding by their own codes; Charles Bronson in The Mechanic could certainly attest to that.
[Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company; Miramax Pictures]
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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
As with seemingly every other tentpole release to hit the multiplex this summer the action thriller Cowboys & Aliens is based on a comic book – albeit a lesser-known one. It’s directed by Jon Favreau whose previous comic-book adaptations Iron Man and Iron Man 2 proved how much better those films can be when they’re grounded in character. Unfortunately his latest effort is grounded not in character but a hook an alt-history scenario best expressed in the language of the average twelve-year-old: “Like wouldn’t it be awesome if like a bunch of 1870s cowboys had to fight a bunch of crazy aliens with exoskeletons and spaceships and super-advanced weapons?”
Like perhaps. The hook was compelling enough to get someone to pony up a reported $160 million to find out and the result is a film in which the western and science-fiction genres don’t so much blend as violently collide. After the wreckage is cleared both emerge worse for wear.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan a stranger who awakens in the New Mexico Territory with a case of amnesia a wound in his side and a strange contraption strapped to his wrist. After dispatching a trio of bandits with Bourne-like efficiency he rides to the nearby town of Absolution where he stumbles on what appears to be an elaborate Western Iconography exhibit presented by the local historical preservation society. There’s the well-meaning town Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) struggling to enforce order amidst lawlessness; the greedy rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who really runs things; his debaucherous cowardly son Percy (Paul Dano); the timid saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell) who’s going to stand up for himself one of these days; the humble preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) dispensing homespun spiritual advice; et al.
Jake of course has his own part to play – the fugitive train-robber – as we discover when his face shows up on a wanted poster and a sneering Dolarhyde fingers him for the theft of his gold. The only character who doesn’t quite conform to type is Ella (Olivia Wilde) who as neither a prostitute nor some man’s wife – the traditional female occupations in westerns – immediately arouses suspicion.
Jake is arrested and ordered to stand trial in Federal court but before he can be shipped off a squadron of alien planes appears in the sky besieging Absolution and making off with several of its terrified citizenry. In the course of the melee Jake’s wrist contraption wherever it came from reveals itself to be quite useful in defense against the alien invaders. Thrown by circumstances into an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde he helps organize a posse to counter the otherworldly threat – and bring back the abductees if possible.
Cowboys & Aliens has many of the ingredients of a solid summer blockbuster but none in sufficient amounts to rate in a summer season crowded with bigger-budget (and better-crafted) spectacle. For a film with five credited screenwriters Cowboys & Aliens’ script is sorely lacking for verve or imagination. And what happened to the Favreau of Iron Man? The playful cheekiness that made those films so much fun is all but absent in this film which takes itself much more seriously than any film called Cowboys & Aliens has a right to. Dude you’ve got men on horses with six-shooters battling laser-powered alien crab people. Lighten up.
Craig certainly looks the part of the western anti-hero – his only rival in the area of rugged handsomeness is Viggo Mortensen – but his character is reduced to little more than an angry glare. And Wilde the poor girl is burdened with loads of clunky exposition. The two show promising glimpses of a romantic spark but their relationship remains woefully underdeveloped. Faring far better is Ford who gets not only the bulk of the film’s choicest lines but also its only touching subplot in which his character’s adopted Indian son played by Adam Beach quietly coaxes the humanity out of the grizzled old man.