Spotlighting Underrated Films:

The Hit (1986)

Boy, do I love the poster for the Stephen Frears film The Hit. It looks like a super-cool 80s noir and it sports the wonderful tag line: “Even bad guys have bad days.” Now, the film isn’t a slick crime piece in the vein of Miami Vice. It is clearly a British crime film and has more in common with the original Get Carter than any mainstream American actioner of that decade. But it is very cool, in a quirky, off-beat way, thanks to the script by Peter Prince.

Braddock (John Hurt) and Myron (Tim Roth) play two hit men – one seasoned, one a kid on his first job – who go to Spain to kidnap a turncoat mobster, who testified against their boss and got the British gangster a nice long stretch in prison. The plan is to bring the “grass,” Willie Parker (Terrence Stamp), back to London, have him face the men he betrayed, and then execute Willie for his crimes against the mob. Of course, things do not go as planned.

First of all, after initially trying to make a break for it, Willie resigns himself to his eventual fate with a Zen-like calm that bewilders and disturbs Braddock and Myron. They cannot determine if his reserve is part of an elaborate con, or if he is being honest when he has said that he has had years to prepare himself for this moment and is ready to face death. Willie has read existentialist philosophy and they haven’t, so it is possible that a little Nietzsche goes a long way to give one perspective, Myron thinks. Braddock’s opinion is less obvious because he stays perennially silent and does what he can to not engage in conversation with Willie.

When the safe houses they rely on prove compromised, and the police begin closing in, the newly minted criminal Myron starts to become quite unreliable and even the seemingly unflappable Braddock shows cracks in his reserve. Even odder, veteran criminal Willie seems bent on giving the two men pointers on the best way to carry out an effective kidnapping, cross a border, and make a clean hit. The more he tries to help them, the more problematic his whole attitude seems. Is Willie mentally ill? A Christ figure? Or is he the wiliest foe they’ve ever faced?

What a cool, weird concept for a crime film.

Pacing, as always, will be a problem for those who are used to Michael Bay films, but I would argue that this film’s stellar cast, beautiful location filming, inventive script, and accomplished directing make it a great viewing experience. This is exactly the kind of movie I would have never discovered if it hadn’t been released by the Criterion Collection. If you are not already following their line of releases with interest, I would suggest you do so. Even if you just check out the movies with plot synopses that appeal to you, you won’t be disappointed.

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Marc DiPaolo is associate professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University. He wrote War, Politics and Superheroes (2011) and Emma Adapted (2007). He is editor of Godly Heretics and Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, and coeditor (with Bryan Cardinale-Powell) of Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh (all 2013). His personal web site is here.

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