From clumsy losers to cold-blooded professionals.
Ever since Hollywood ditched the self-imposed Hays Code in the late 1960s, under which the US film industry self-censored itself to maintain a facade of propriety, a whole slew of movies have been released about all kinds of contract killers, ranging from clumsy losers to cold-blooded professionals.
Some of these characters have ended up as hitmen through unfortunate circumstances, some have been cruel, some have been funny, some have been ruthless, some have been hot, some have followed their own code of honour. And the audiences have invariably fallen victim to their charisma, identifying with them and often even crushing hopelessly on them.
Alex Lewis (Liam Neeson)
In Martin Campbell's Memory, Neeson plays an experienced contract killer living in Mexico. He is showing signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s, so he decides to retire, but he agrees to do one last job in El Paso. He executes the first hit with zero hassle, stealing a flash drive with information incriminating the son of an influential real property developer. He hits a snag with his second target, though, as it turns out to be a 13-year-old girl and for Alex children are off-limits. He refuses to execute the second hit and keeps the flash drive as insurance. One thing leads to another, and soon Alex goes on a revenge spree, killing bad guys left right and centre.
In this movie, we’ve got a complex protagonist. Yes, he’s a contract killer, but he has principles, he regrets his past mistakes, he is dealing with his early onset Alzheimer’s and he’s willing to keep killing those who deserve it until his last breath. Alex Lewis is a vigilante, a kind of Batman, cleaning up the streets of his own private Gotham but he’s slowly but surely losing his memory. Alex Lewis is easy to relate to and even easier to sympathise with.
Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)
In the Coen Brothers' 2007 Oscar-winning crime thriller No Country for Old Men, a charismatic contract killer pursues a war veteran who stole money from drug dealers. The role of Anton Chigurh, a ruthless assassin, was played by Javier Bardem.
Anton’s signature weapon is a captive bolt stunner, which he uses to kill his victims and as a tool to shoot outdoor locks. In one scene, he tosses a coin to decide whether to kill a man or let him go. Javier Bardem managed to create an impossible-to-forget character, so it's little wonder he got an Oscar for this role.
Vincent (Tom Cruise)
Collateral, directed by Michael Mann in 2004, tells the story of a cab driver and his passenger, an experienced and ruthless contract killer named Vincent and played by Tom Cruise. Vincent arrives in Los Angeles to take out five targets in one night.
Tom Cruise, who usually plays good guys in films like Mission Impossible and Jack Reacher, even dyed his hair grey for this role to distance himself from his more traditional roles; still, it's impossible not to cheer for him.
Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman)
So far, all the contract killers on the list have been men, but there have been some kick-ass female assassins in films over time. One such memorable character is Beatrix Kiddo, the protagonist of Quentin Tarantino's 2003-2004 cult classics Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Kill Bill: Volume 2.
When Uma Thurman's character realises she's pregnant, she leaves the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, but one doesn't simply leave the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. They come after her and turn her wedding into a massacre. Beatrix barely survives and is left in a coma. When she comes to, she goes on a revenge rampage, in which every kill is a work of art and a loving homage to the martial arts and samurai genres.
Beatrix is one of the most relatable assassins in the history of cinema: she's vulnerable and human, and first and foremost, she's a mother, and her primary motivation in taking out the entire Deadly Viper Assassination Squad is to protect her daughter, whom Bill, the squad’s leader and Beatrix’s former lover, has abducted, because as long as they are out there and Bill is alive, she and her daughter can never be safe.
Leon (Jean Reno)
Luc Besson's legendary 1994 Leon: The Professional tells the story of a contract killer who helps his 12-year-old neighbour Matilda, whose family gets taken out by corrupt DEA agents. Leon wants to do something good to atone for all the lives he's taken, and Matilda seeks revenge for her parents.
Jean Reno's character may be a contract killer, but he has a code, and he's essentially a big child taken advantage of by the cruel world around him. Leon is one of the most relatable big-screen contract assassins.
Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson)
Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) are the charming enforcers from Quentin Tarantino's 1994 Pulp Fiction. They're not just faceless goons; they are super relatable as they go about their business, whether it's sending a message from their boss by wiping out a crew that tried to steal from him or taking the boss's wife out to a dance.
They're people like us, with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies and all that killing and maiming; it's just a job, nothing personal. But like any job, it can get to you, and Jules does burn out eventually, which still beats getting killed in the line of duty like Vincent Vega.