Top 10 Movie Hitmen

by Warren Cantrell on November 10, 2009

in Top 10s

Warren J Cantrell, the man who wrote so many Top 10 lists for us that he started his own site (, is back! Here’s Warren:

I recently saw a movie with an assassin character that frightened me so thoroughly that I realized there were things in this world more terrible than credit card interest and reality television, more vile than Osama, the Wolfman, and Bill O’Rielly combined. In short, watching this film and its hitman, I realized just how juicy that particular character composite is, the possibilities afforded to a performer inhabiting somebody with a broken moral compass fascinating to say the least. I won’t mention the name of the film now, as its hitman made the #1 spot, and there’s nine other worthy options to get through before the top choice is revealed. To be in contention on the list, the hitman in question had to be just that: a hitman. Thus, no revenge operators, weekend warriors, or “fixers” were allowed, the entrants below characterized in their respective films specifically as assassins (sorry Michael Caine, “Get Carter” was sweet, but you weren’t a hitman, per se).

Sadly, Marshall Bell’s Webster from “Twins” was excused, for while that guy had the spirit of his character down what with his insistence that nobody saw his face and that human life was cheaper than a gum wrapper, the dude had trouble running down Danny friggin’ DeVito. While I love the guy and what his Frank character has brought to “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” if a hitman has a hard time pursuing that troll of a man, he isn’t worthy to shine the shoes of the characters below, let alone stand proudly beside them. Sam Rockwell and Tom Cruise are also missing from the list, the former (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”) because his character was a mediocre killer at best, the latter (“Collateral”) because he’s still in timeout due to “Last Samurai”-related atrocities. Spader’s Lee got left out from “2 Days in the Valley” not because he wasn’t pretty damn awesome, but if a hitman can’t even kill is own girlfriend, he needs to go back to the drawing board (the same goes for Malkovich in “In the Line of Fire,” who couldn’t even kill his prey or a 70-year-old Clint Eastwood). As a technicality, all Terminators must likewise be excluded, for be it Arnie, Patrick, or that freaky hand-cannon bitch, all those assassins were machines, hence not technically hitMEN. Also, pretty much any of the women from the “Kill Bill” series would have made it in had the films dedicated more time to exploring just how awesome those broads were in the performance of their duties (not that the I’m judging). Lastly, Timothy Olyphant got left out not because his character wasn’t pretty damn skilled, but because his movie (“Hitman”) completely blew, and for this reason I could not stomach ranking that performance ahead of…

brosnan matador10. Pierce Brosnan in “The Matador” (2005)

Brosnan got a lot of justifiably positive reviews for his turn in this film, his portrayal of a shattered, insecure, broken villain going so far against typecast that his “Julian” operated as a veritable anti-Bond. The turning point for his character was an uncharacteristic moment of hesitation during a routine execution, a long-since discarded scrap of humanity resurfaced at the most inopportune possible moment. What he realized through the course of this film was that he had made a total separation from the ordinary, that he’d abandoned basic human connections and relationships in deference to his craft. Though such a transformation is often a necessary sacrifice when maintaining an international gun-for-hire business, the effects on one’s personal life as portrayed through Julian in The Matador were devastating. Drunk, lonely, and desperate to realize just one legitimate relationship in his life, Brosnan’s character first called what few numbers he had only to realize anybody who knew him was rightly terrified of him and wanted nothing to do with the guy. It then became clear that when strangers got to know him, they too wanted nothing but distance from the increasingly unbalanced assassin, well-intentioned though he may have been. Desperate for a friend, he practically took one hostage, harassing Greg Kinnear’s character “Danny” until an uneasy bond developed between the two men. The meeting and reluctant friendship was ultimately serendipitous, as Julian taught Danny how nasty the world truly was outside of stupid business deals and hotel cocktail lounges. Through Danny, Julian got his edge back, pulling the trigger on a contract after a little help from his new friend, the assistance of whom proved that Julian had indeed gained a shred of humanity through a legitimate connection. True, the bond was ultimately cemented through a joint-effort assassination, yet in Julian the audience got a real-deal, precision killer, albeit one with a few issues that needed ironing out. This is something the next entrant could certainly relate to, a man who went through his own mid-life crisis during the picture…

cusack grosse pointe blank9. John Cusack in “Grosse Pointe Blank” (1997)

Like the previous hitman, though Cusack’s character in this movie possessed some serious assassination skills, the man was more than a little damaged due to his profession. Funny thing was, his character “Martin” was less concerned about the taxing aspects associated with his job and more about the woman he had stood up ten years earlier. Telling his shrink that if a person met him in a “business” sense, chances are they did something to deserve it, and thus Martin approached it as a professional and never wavered. Courted by a shadowy association of assassins looking to add his considerable chops to their business resume, it’s understandable why the guy was in such demand. Capable of hits at long (bicycle messenger), medium (hotel poison and run-down), and short range (hallway kung fu battle) Cusack’s character knew what the hell he was doing. Maybe his best moment was the climactic house finale, when he took on roughly half a dozen hitters single-handedly, double-fisting semi-automatics, a single frying pan, and big-tube T.V. during the contest. To take this demonstration of killing prowess over, say, the mini-mart gunfight might seem a bit hasty, but remember, Martin didn’t kill anybody during that showdown. True, he scored heavily for getting his ass out in one piece despite an ambush, and extra style points for the fact that the battle took place in a store (soon to explode as a finale) renovated from his childhood home, that the guy proposed at the end of a bloodbath in his beloved’s home has to take the cake. So for that awesome demonstration at the end of the film to save both his life, and his chances of true love, Martin gets a spot.

karl urban bourne8. Karl Urban in “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004)

Karl Urban has been getting a lot of great ink (and deservedly so) for his most recent turn as Dr. “Bones” McCoy in the most recent Star Trek re-boot. It was his performance as “Eomir” in the second and third Lord of the Rings films that caught most of the movie-going public’s attention, his tough-as-nails cavalry commander coming through in a pinch more than once to get his ass into the action. It was because of this manly cred. that most sat up and took more than passing glance at the assassin tracking down Jason Bourne in the second installment of the Bourne trilogy, and a familiar looking face that, while evil this time around, still radiated a fourteen pound pair of balls. Showing the audience that he was a force to be reckoned with, the hitman was right on Bourne’s ass in India as the first act got going in The Bourne Supremacy, something that showed the assassin had some serious chops: anybody capable of getting a bead on Bourne not one to be screwed with. Shooting Bourne’s woman during a brisk high-speed chase right before sending the couple’s jeep careening into a river, Kirill understandably figured his foe for dead, pretty much the only mistake he made throughout the picture. Reappearing near the end of the second act to mop up the job, Urban’s character reemerged in Russia, actually managing to put a slug in Bourne before beginning one of the gnarliest high-speed chases ever caught on film. True, Bourne ultimately got the drop on him, and smashed the cock-sucker’s car to pieces, yet something pretty amazing happened after that: Bourne let him live! True, Kirill’s clock looked to be running pretty slow, if not already stopped, when Bourne neglected to give the coup de grace, yet the audience almost got the sense that Bourne respected the guy too much to put him down, his skills and capacities as a hitman too outstanding to waste with a bullet. Though Kirill had killed Jason’s woman when she was sitting right next to him and had fired a bullet into his back, even this couldn’t break the unshakable respect shown between expert killers. While Clive Owen’s hitter in the first installment or even Bourne himself could have easily made it onto this list, to pick one assassin out of the entire trilogy that embodied the steely-eyed precision of government operatives and not select Urban’s “Kirill” would be a crime.

van cleef good bad ugly7. Lee Van Cleef in “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” (1966)

Speaking of hard-dick assassins with no remorse and a frightful commitment to their craft, how could Van Cleef’s finest role get neglected? After going against type in For A Few Dollars More, Lee discarded the white protagonist hat for a darker shade, bringing a minimalist approach to a western archetype that had long since veered into near-comic ham-fistery. Showing the audience he was nothing if not professional, he killed “Stevens” at the beginning of the movie even after he’d learned about Carson’s gold, and even ate some of the guy’s dinner. Demonstrating from there that he was nothing if not an asshole, he went ahead and killed the guy who had contracted the Stevens hit, making sure nobody else would be going after a treasure only he had eyes for. Resourceful enough to hook up a non-com gig in the Army in order to facilitate his search, he showed that he was no slouch when it came to his skills, killing or maiming pretty much anybody who got in his way, and a few others that didn’t. As is often the case with special films and performances, what is most striking about Angel Eyes is what wasn’t seen. The audience must assume that since this guy was in position and ready at every turn, always on top of Blondie and Tuco no matter what path they followed, that this guy was one hell of an operator. On Tuco after the encounter with Carson, at the prison camp after he and Blondie had been captured, and appearing pretty much out of the ether at Sad Hill Cemetery, Angel Eyes was a deadly, persistent bastard, killed only because he met a slightly better man.

richard bright godfather6. Richard Bright in “The Godfather,” et al 

There’s something to be said about some old-school Sicilian assassination shit, and that’s what you’re getting with Al Neri. To cheat a little and dive into his literary back story, this guy was a dude on the edge in the original novel, a cop prone to whipping the shit out of citizens with his large-handled flashlight. This kind of behavior got him divorced and thrown off the force and into the can, which is right where the Corleones found him. Putting Neri to work as a triggerman for the family, he quickly rose to the designated hitter spot within the ranks, acting as the go-to murderer and bodyguard for Michael after the boy-prodigy’s return from Italy. This is right about where The Godfather film picked up with his character, showing the guy at Michael’s hip after his return to the States, and in a policeman’s uniform gunning down Barzini during the famous baptism scene. In the second installment he rigged a brothel with a dead hooker to lock up Senator Geary’s loyalties early on, then went ahead and shot Fredo in the back of the head on orders. Most impressively, however, the guy had longevity in a business with a fairly short career-path. Still alive and kicking in Godfather III, Neri helped save Michael from helicopter assassins and even chipped in with the murder of an Archbishop at the end. Skilled beyond reproach, reliable, and loyal, this was one hell of a guy to have at the ready, willing to tow the line despite management fluctuations. Indeed, first to pledge his loyalty to Vincent after Michael had handed over power, Al showed that in a profession filled primarily with dickheads (see the previous entrant for evidence there), there were a few choice picks to be had. Indeed, when speaking of old-school sensibilities, and the embrace of a spotlight with little screen-time, how can we pass up…

billy connolly boondock saints 19995. Billy Connolly in “The Boondock Saints” (1999)

Getting in more for his mythic bad-assery and less because of his refined, polished, and flawless skills (hinted at, yet cruelly denied to the audience), dear old dad slips into contention because he perfectly embraced the power of the unknown. In the film, it was said that The Duke was brought in only three times over the course of twenty years, and only because “things were totally fucked.” A go-to man for the mafia, his particular skill involved killing those criminals who were most difficult to dispatch, that which was churned up in his wake seemingly more trouble than he was worth. Beyond this, and other subtle intimations like his handling when getting released from prison in a manner that would make Hannibal Lecter blush, the audience got the sense that this dude meant business in the old-school, Biblical sense. Going absolutely Josey Wales when off his leash, Il Duce went into battle with not just one or two guns, but six! Facing a trio of guys in this stand-off, he came out alive, wounding all three of his prey (a noteworthy achievement considering at least two of those individuals had God-Almighty personally protecting their asses). At the end, he helped engineer a hit against a known Mafioso on trial, successfully moving his crew in and out of an active courtroom while still getting the job leisurely done. What is most impressive, however, is what the man spawned, for truly, this guy had “hitman” coursing through his genes, his progeny as deadly a pair of killers as any that might be found on this list or elsewhere. Composed of a manly back story, admirable skills, a solid blood-line, and a steely resolve, the man certainly cast a long shadow over possible entrants on this list, failing to beat out the remaining characters only because of a shamefully low kill-count. Still, because he made even the scariest men in the film tremble, and because his presence was less associated with a man and more with a force of nature, Il Duce gets a nod.

willis jackal 20044. Bruce Willis in “The Jackal” (1997)

This one would have made it higher than even this coveted spot had the assassin in question not been trapped in so shitty a movie. Indeed, while I have nothing against Richard Gere, the man has no business trying to cobble together an Irish accent, just as the director of this disaster, Michael Caton-Jones, has no business making films (his most recent contribution to cinema was Basic Instinct 2). The thing is, this was actually one hell of a slick hitman, Bruce Willis’ “Jackal” demonstrating many of the finest qualities associated with a professional murderer throughout this film. A master of disguise and obfuscation, The Jackal never kept one look for too terribly long, constantly changing his appearance in ways that didn’t just hide the fact that Bruce Willis is bald. Totally committed to his project, The Jackal never hesitated to kill anybody who got in his way. Along with his dismembering of poor Jack Black from over 50 yards out with a mounted automatic cannon, he also tortured a woman liver-shot for no other real reason than to prove he wasn’t to be fucked with. Hired to kill a high-level American personality to avenge the death of a Russian crime boss’ sibling, The Jackal immediately went to work setting up multiple covers in a number of different countries, employing stealth, cunning, savagery, and balls in his quest to take out the First Lady. Asshole that he was for such a move, the film allowed him to get close, ending his run in a subway with a hostage at the end, a confused-looking Richard Gere standing over his foe, almost certainly wondering how a guy who had played “Hudson Hawk” had stolen the best role of the film from him. It’s because he ultimately failed in his task and got smoked that The Jackal didn’t get higher consideration, for while the guy certainly knew his shit when it came to staying under the radar, employing sneaky espionage practices, and constructing sweet-ass machine guns, if a hitman can’t ultimately get the job done, how could one place him higher than say…

jean reno professional3. Jean Reno in “The Professional,” or “Leon” (1994)

You’re going to have to get up pretty early in the morning to get over on this guy, the two entries that beat him out in their respective places on this list not necessarily there because they were better, but because…well, more on that in a bit. With “Leon,” however, you’ve got the consummate professional, hence the title of the 1994 film. Set like a timer into his methodical routines, it is only by staying perfectly tuned and prepared that he achieved success in hit after hit. Though one might argue that the introduction of Matilda into his life brought him just that, a life, what one can’t argue is the steep decline in his job performance after he got a roommate. But while a pinch of humanity and a dash of purpose dulled his skills, they certainly didn’t annihilate them. After eliminating a squad of drug dealers and corrupt cops, he went on to single-handedly take on (and beat) several SWAT teams and “EVERYONE!!!!” associated with law enforcement in his particular neighborhood. Quick on his feet, resourceful, one hell of a shot, and of a perfect mind-set for assassinations (prior to the realization that he had an operational soul, that is) Leon was a tough customer to beat. Yet it’s because the audience got to know Leon so well that he did not achieve truly epic status and consideration. In the next entrant, as well as the last to follow, again, what was most striking and terrifying about the characters was not their actions and what you knew about them, but what they’d done and the seeming lack of purpose both in the murders and those perpetrating them.

mifune blood pass incident2. Toshiro Mifune in “Incident at Blood Pass,”or “Machibuse” (1970)

Mifune was so friggin’ hard in this movie he made granite look like mashed potatoes. His seminal “man with no name” character returned one last time in this film about an elaborate double and triple-cross at a mountain cross-roads during Japan’s Edo period. The film started with Mifune’s familiar Yojimbo character receiving instructions about his next hit, getting orders to simply head to the top of a pass and wait for the action to come to him (he and the audience never have any doubt that it would). From here, Mifune’s character got caught in a series of intrigues at a small inn and tea house, cautiously surveying a situation that was slowly spiraling out of control. At first thought to be there in order to help hijack a gold shipment, Mifune’s Ronin character realized he’d been inserted into the drama to help facilitate a sneaky back-stab, his honor as a samurai put into question as a result. Totally confident, in control, and capable of slicing everybody he encountered into pieces small enough to fit through the top of a salt shaker, his hitman ultimately sacrificed duty for honor, protecting the innocent at the betrayal of his employer. What followed was a revenge-inspired finale whereby Mifune’s samurai character clean-cut and diced almost half a dozen guys in the course of maybe sixty seconds. What is most striking about this action was that it was withheld from the audience until the last few minutes of the film, Mifune’s very presence, stature, and posture throughout the previous 100 or so minutes inspiring all around him to stay the hell away. Indeed, there’s something to be said about a hitman who is so goddamned tough that his or her mere presence alludes to a danger lurking not far beneath the surface, everyone around them giving a wide berth without being told to. Without guns, arrows, explosives, disguises, or any real attempt to hide what he was, this Yojimbo character still got his job done (well, sorta, he did kill a whole bunch of fools), kicking ass, taking names, and looking as cool as shit in the process. While pretty damn awesome, he just barely missed out on the #1 spot, something reserved for the character who inspired a list (and some nightmares …)

bardem no country for old men 20071. Javier Bardem in “No Country For Old Men” (2007)

After the Oscars, all the critical acclaim, the box office revenues, and the positive word of mouth, it seems almost trite to heap another log on this film’s fire. Much has already been said about Mr. Bardem’s terrifying performance as “Anton Chigurh,” Roger Ebert perhaps getting the closest when he said that everybody else in the movie simply operated as a conditional reaction to Bardem’s character. Indeed, Chigurh’s disposition was such that everybody in his universe bent because of his presence, the innocent and guilty often falling victim to his principled reality simply because they were unlucky enough to cross his path. In Chigurh’s signature prop, the coin, this was represented most clearly, for be it a gas station attendant, highway patrolman, or marked contract in possession of $2 million in drug money: if you were face to face with this guy, he assumed you were just as likely to die as to live. Having unconditionally embraced his station in life, Chigurh operated in a manner that allowed for the least amount of confusion. Being a killer, if you met him, fate would have it that you should die. Being a killer, if you met him and you had in any way pissed him off or lined yourself up so that he was after you, then you would, without any question, die. As Bardem’s character explained to Harrelson’s, while he was often told “you don’t have to do this” when staring down his prey, to the shadowy assassin, nothing could be further from the truth. A killer in the most pure and honest sense of the word, the situation was quite the opposite: when about to pounce on his victim he did “have” to do it. Lions roar, monkeys throw shit, dogs bark and killers kill. Almost mythically endowed with talent and a skill to seemingly slink out of a tight spot via the shadows, Chigurh was not only an impossible-to-shake hitman, but the most honest, pure, undiluted assassin on this list or in film history. Totally committed to his purpose in life to the point that he felt compelled to kill nearly everybody fate threw in his path, the man came full circle, going from human, to monster, and back to human again, his brain void of reasoning beyond that which was needed to pull a trigger or flip a coin.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.


{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 C-Dawg November 10, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Here is my Top Ten Fictional Assasins/Hitmen from back in Feb (we’re pretty close):


2 Xavier November 10, 2009 at 3:22 pm

I don’t care about the last samurai how can you not include Tom Cruise in Collateral. I probably would have gone with bourne over kirril but maybe all the assassins from the series could have been put in the one slot on the list.
A couple of more honorable mentions that could have made the list; Edward Fox in the Day of the Jackal, Annie Parillaud in Nikita. Also maybe not the best hitmen but Collin Farrel, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes were pretty entertaining hitmen from In Bruges.


3 Kenny November 10, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Nice list! Can’t argue with any of it. What’s more terrifying to audiences in this modern world than a hitman being fixated on killing anyone he encounters with his only justification being a flip of a coin?


4 Ross McG November 10, 2009 at 4:43 pm

this a pretty good list with a good number 1, although i reckon theres a few youve missed.
Bruce Willis in The Jackal but not the meticulous Edward Fox in The Day Of The Jackal?
and where is Lee Marvin from Point Blank?
and sorry Xavier, but Cruiser’s Vincent was one of the worst hitmen ever. every time he killed someone he either left huge clues or missed.
shooting up a nightclub is not something a cool hitman would do


5 hellohawk November 10, 2009 at 6:59 pm

Chigurh is the best by far. Awesome list!


6 Xavier November 10, 2009 at 10:07 pm

I think shooting up a nightclub just proves how kickass and awesome you are as a hitman but that’s just me


7 Ross McG November 11, 2009 at 8:20 am

Xavier: hitmen should be stealthy and quiet apart from the sound of their gun. (if they can use a silencer thats even better)
although i have to agree with you, i do love that nightclub scene. the Cruiser rocks. crap hitman though.


8 hellohawk November 11, 2009 at 9:52 am

One thought: are you a fan of “In Bruges”? Cuz that movie has three pretty memorable hitmen. Only none of them really end up “hitting” anyone but themselves.


9 hardy November 11, 2009 at 1:05 pm

sweet list… havnt seen #2 but totally agree with #3 and #1, i wish i could see the professional movie for the first time again… but out of curiosity, why no jules winnfeild?


10 Xavier November 11, 2009 at 2:17 pm

I know cruise wasn’t the perfect hitman but that movie rocks and he’s badass in it, he would still definitely make my list easily, despite his lack of stealth and secrecy.


11 Eric Melin November 11, 2009 at 7:06 pm

“In Bruges”! Yes!


12 Dirk November 12, 2009 at 10:00 am

How about Charles Bronson in just about anything he did? John Cusack, Pierce Brosnan, and Bruce Willis wouldn’t even qualify as stains in Bronson’s underwear.


13 the don November 12, 2009 at 10:09 am

Travolta and Jackson from “Pulp Fiction” are pretty badass – a combo of funny and nonchalant and very dangerous…


14 Dirk November 12, 2009 at 10:21 am

Come to think of it, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a hit man from the future in The Terminator. He’d wipe out all these guys.


15 Ryan November 12, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven?


16 Eric Melin November 12, 2009 at 5:57 pm

Oooooh, nice, Ryan, Touche.


17 Wayne swab November 12, 2009 at 7:10 pm

Not to take anything away from your list, here are 10 more…….. feel free to discuss

Ed Fox in The Day of the Jackel
James Remar in 10 to Midnight
Vinnie Jones as Bullet Tooth Tony
James Coburn as Pat Garrett
Mel Gibson as Porter in Payback
Henry Silva as Billy Score in Sharkey’s Machine
Sonny Chiba in Street Fighter
Bruce Willis in Lucky # Slevin
The Badass in Scarface with the sawed off
The Iceman in Get Carter
James B. Sikking in Point Blank
and Billy Crystal in Throw Momma from the Train


18 Wayne swab November 12, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Steven Segal in anything he’s ever done. He not only killed his own career, he killed his wives, and anyone else who starred opposite him.


19 Eric Melin November 12, 2009 at 8:23 pm

And then Wayne kills it with the punchline and the “Point Blank” reference; nice.


20 Ryan November 12, 2009 at 11:59 pm

Somewhere in the world Chuck Norris is pissed after his brilliant role as Cliff Garrett in The Hitman was left off this list. Chuck’s beard has vowed revenge for this snub.

P.S. If anyone is thinking of suggesting Mark Walberg’s character Melvin Smiley from The Big Hit be added to the list, you should be banned by Eric.


21 Wayne swab November 13, 2009 at 8:14 am

Chuck Bronson in the Mechanic


22 warren-j November 15, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Dirk, read the intro re: Terminator.
As for In Bruges, check the 10rant; within the next week, there will be a full explanation of why it didn’t make this list (but why Colin Farrel DID make my Top 10 Worst Traveling Companions list).
As for Clint in Unforgiven, while a good hitman for the two jobs, the movie cruelly denied us any backstory on the guy (though I was VERY tempted to put him on there anyway).
As for leaving off Brosnan and Norris, I humbly submit that I dropped the ball there. I’ve since kicked my own ass.


23 Natallia November 16, 2009 at 5:07 pm

Your excellent movie review was the very first thing I read this morning. My cat babies were gathered around me as I chuckled and giggled and almost nearly cried, and I do believe they also appreciated the review mightily.


24 Jake November 19, 2009 at 12:11 pm

can someone please explain to me what exactly it was in In Bruges that made people think it’s good. i kept waiting for something good in that movie & it never happened. also, i might get some backlash for this, but what’s everybody got against The Last Samurai? i thought that movie was a damn good.


25 killshot January 2, 2010 at 1:25 pm

What about collateral??


26 Slay August 1, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Timothy Olyphant as agent 47????


Cancel reply

Leave a Comment


Previous post:

Next post: