Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Two contract killers, their mark, a seductive woman. A philosophical road trip towards death, though it’s not entirely clear who will die and who will live. Psychological games, tense stand-offs, sudden violence. You may not be able to name any specific title, but it still sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Tarantino, McDonagh, or indeed Hemingway. Cheap suits, hidden guns, strong language: hitmen make for very effective cinema.
The Hit, an early film by a pre-My Beautiful Laundrette Stephen Frears, feels like both a precursor to movies like In Bruges and a descendant of Harold Pinter’s absurdist hitman comedy The Dumb Waiter. Its individual parts aren’t particularly original – but at the same time, it feels entirely like its own thing, which is in no small part due to the cast.
Terence Stamp as the man with a price on his head is easily recognisable as an aging limey criminal, it’s the kind of role that fits him like a glove – not least because there’s an element of the theatrical to his brand of criminal: they’re all actors, really, relishing their chance to play the role of roguish crook to the hilt. At the same time, his Willie is strangely serene – so much so that it’s impossible for the two killers not to be unnerved. Is he making fun of them? Does he know something they don’t know? When he holds forth on the end of his life, he sounds like something between a philosopher and a charlatan: “I’ll tell you something I read once, Myron. Apparently, what happens to you after death is not all that much different from what happens to you before death. Physically speaking. All part of the same process. You know? So if it’s all the same, really, what’s there to worry about?” At the same time as holding forth on life and death, though, he plays one man against the other, sometimes subtly, sometimes decidedly less so, cockily certain that he is entirely safe until he’s been delivered to the man that wants him dead.
The two killers are – but then, aren’t they always? – an odd couple: John Hurt, at his most reptilian, starts off as a blank but becomes increasingly ill-tempered because this is not how a job’s supposed to go, this is not how a mark’s supposed to behave. It doesn’t help that his apprentice, a disconcertingly young Tim Roth who’s barely old enough to shave, may be enthusiastic but clearly isn’t the shiniest bullet in the magazine. There’s an endearing quality to Roth’s character: barely more than a boy who likes to act the tough guy, but he is most happy when he can show off the leather club he made in handicraft lessons at school. As much of a child as he is, though, he’s the kind of boy that easily gets out of control when he viciously attacks a group of young locals who laugh at his hard-man act.
And then there’s Maggie (Laura del Sol), a young woman who ends up with the others by misfortune: she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a potential witness, she too is marked for death, and it’s clear that Hurt’s older, more experienced and more hardened killer is more than ready to put a bullet in her, but this is where his experience falters: it’s risky business to put his barely pubescent partner next to Maggie on the back seat of the car and expect the kid not to have a reaction. Of the four, Maggie is perhaps the least developed character, not least because everyone else is a Brit, and like Brits in Spain are wont to do, they behave like they’re at home: who needs to speak Spanish if you, your partner and the man you’re going to kill all speak English? Nonetheless, while she doesn’t get as much of the dialogue, she still more than holds her own against men who could end her life in an instant.
The Hit has all the ingredients for a nastier, more lurid film: hardened criminals, a sexy woman, a long drive through a mostly deserted landscape? You can imagine the film going places that may fit the setup and characters but that wouldn’t be particularly interesting. Instead, we get something that’s both funnier and more Zen: Frears’ direction, the script by Peter Prince (who went on to write Waterworld, of all things!) and the performances take what could have been a predictable genre piece and turn it into an oddly philosophical dramedy thriller that can go from laconic humour to moments of tight-as-a-wire tension in a second. The Hit shows its age visually and its Eric Clapton-does-flamenco soundtrack, but while it may look and sound like an ’80s movie, it can’t really be pinned down. (In this respect, it’s not too dissimilar to Steven Soderbergh’s elliptic, feverish thriller The Limey, another surprising Terence Stamp vehicle.) Death may be waiting at the end of the journey for all of these characters – but not in the way they, or we, expect.