Hit Men Movies


posted to www.marxmail.org on July 3, 2003


I had selected Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 "Le Samouraï" and Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai's 2001 "Fulltime Killer" pretty much at random from the local video store. But comparisons between these two 'noirs' involving hit men and the cops who pursue them began to suggest themselves immediately. Especially after 'fulltime killer' Tok (Andy Lau), whose main interest outside of killing people on contract is movies, berates a thug for never having seen "Le Samouraï".


Melville's Parisian hit man is improbably named Jef Costello. Played by Alain Delon, this character has the same laconic charisma as the just as improbably named master burglar Corey he played in Melville's 1970 "Le Cercle Rouge", a film I reviewed a while back (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/Le_Cercle_Rouge.htm). With their American names and their wardrobe lifted from a Bogart film, these quintessentially Melvillian characters live outside of society and eschew intimacy of any sort, except camaraderie with fellow outlaws.


"Le Samouraï" begins with bogus quote from the East: "There's no greater solitude that the Samurai's, unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle." Written by Melville himself, but attributed to the Japanese "Book of Bushido", this is the same gimmick that he used in "Le Cercle Rouge." The film opens with a saying attributed to the Buddha, but written by Melville himself, that men who are destined to meet will eventually meet in the red circle of fate, no matter what.


Of course, the affinity between bowdlerized Japanese culture and American b-movies is more than skin-deep. When Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" inspired the western "Magnificent Seven", one might be led to take into account the influence of classic western films on Kurosawa himself early on in his career. Such is the nature of the film 'lingua franca' that fertilized and cross-fertilized the work of so many directors and screenwriters in the post-WWII period.


Jef Costello is bound by a strict ethical code, despite the fact that he is violating one of the most sacrosanct Ten Commandments on an ongoing basis. Unlike real life hit men such as Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, this killer commands respect and admiration--even if his life seems barren and unrewarding in most respects. Living in a dingy studio apartment and enjoying no companionship except that of a pet bird, he seems to live only for his next assignment. When he is betrayed by the men who hired him to kill a nightclub owner, he risks everything--including capture by the police who are following his every move--to pay them back.


"Fulltime Killer" pits the Chinese assassin Tok against his Japanese rival O (Takashi Sorimachi). Since Tok came close to winning a gold medal in the Olympics target shooting competitions, he is eminently qualified to kill his quarry, especially at long range. The only thing that stands in his way to becoming Number One is the reclusive and withdrawn O, who makes Jef Costello look like a social butterfly.


Ostensibly living in modest bachelor digs, O actually occupies a loft across the street which is stocked with the latest weaponry and telephoto lenses. From the window of the loft, he voyeuristically gazes at his housekeeper Chin (Kelly Lin) who suspects that her employer might be a hit man. Whenever he lives town, she notices that there is a contract hit carried out in the city he has just visited.


By contrast, Tok is outgoing and affectionate in an almost manic fashion. When he runs into Chin, who works at a video store when not looking after O's apartment, he is clad in a rubber Bill Clinton mask like that used--as he puts it--in that film where the robbers all wore such masks. (Point Blank). He later puts the mask to good use when he kills a gangster and his henchmen in broad daylight not ten blocks from where he has been having a pleasant lunch with Chin. He blandly assures her that after he has killed a few bad men, he would rejoin her in no more than fifteen minutes. He keeps his word.


The final confrontation between Tok and O takes place in a fireworks factory and incorporates all of the elaborate gunplay-choreography of a classic John Woo film.


Despite attempts by Martin Scorsese and others to strip the romantic aura from the professional hit man in films such as "Goodfellas", this genre continues to have enormous appeal. Such films are the quintessential escape. The heroes not only live outside of bourgeois society, they seem to care little about its rules. With their thin veneer of existentialism and their highly stylized presentation, there is a commonality between Melville's work, a whole school of Hong Kong film analyzed by Michael Hoover and Lisa Stokes in "City on Fire" and derivative works by Quentin Tarentino and his imitators.


They seem to flourish when the class struggle is in ebb--the late 1940s were a good time for Hollywood 'noir' classics just as the 1990s gave rise to John Woo and other Hong Kong masters who reworked the Hollywood genre to reflect a troubled and seemingly hopeless transition period in the British colony. In an interview with John Woo in the Bright Lights Film Journal (http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/31/hk_johnwoo.html), he parries the interviewer's question about his apparent love for violence:


"As a child, I was raised in the slums of Hong Kong. I saw too many people killed in disasters and by gangs. Growing up in the slums is like growing up in hell. In the ’50s and ’60s, there were riots, and I witnessed people killed by police right outside my own door. I also was very active during the Vietnam War. On the one hand, I so admire those men who went away to fight for their country. But also I was very against war, killing, and fighting... in any respect. I always dreamed of a better world. Another place where there is no violence and only peace and love exist. I have seen enough violence. In actual life, I hate violence! But the world is not like I dreamed; there is violence and crime everywhere. My ideal is that there is always some sort of justice."


Perhaps with a rise in the class struggle, directors with such feelings will be able to express themselves in a more hopeful fashion.