Dang, there sure are a lot of hitman characters in the movies. And what's the difference between a hitman and an assassin, anyway? Does Jason Bourne count, or is he no longer a hitman/assassin by the time his cinematic story begins? Are Pulp Fiction's Vincent and Jules really hitmen or are they technically bagmen? Yeah, it's a difficult task to make a list of prominent hitmen in film. So, I'll let someone else make a "25 Greatest Hitmen" list; here, I present my seven favorites.
Feel free to mention your own preferences. With so many characters, whether easily falling within definition or not, I'm certainly leaving out a lot of good ones. But, as I said, these are my favorites. The cool, the funny, the interesting, they're the ones I enjoy watching over and over again, despite their lethal nature.
Martin Q. Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997, George Armitage)
There is no better hitman than John Cusack's Martin Blank. He's good at his job, and he's funny, and he's willing to give it all up for love. Of course, he's bored enough by the occupation that he'd probably give it up for any good reason. It doesn't seem to matter to him that it's morally wrong; he's just another normal guy, dissatisfied with his job. And while it does seem to be a gag that's stretched thin, his issues do make him more entertaining than the usual silent-yet-conflicted hitmen. Plus, it's enjoyable to think that this is what really happened to Lloyd Dobbler, or Lane Meyer, or any other Cusack character from the '80s.
Signature line: "I was hired to kill you, but I'm not going to do it. It's either because I'm in love with your daughter or because I have a new found respect for life."
Léon in Léon (aka The Professional) (1994, Luc Besson)
Jean Reno's hitman is silent-yet-conflicted, but he's also unintentionally funny and also seems bored with being so good at his job. Fortunately, he also finds love and a new respect for life when he encounters young Matilda (Natalie Portman), who he takes in as his protegé. He kills for money, but he's also a good soul and has some morals. What's not to love?
Signature line: "No women, no kids, that's the rules."
Ghost Dog in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999, Jim Jarmusch)
Speaking of good souls, hitmen don't get much more huggable than Forrest Whitaker's Ghost Dog. He's somewhat of a parody of Alain Delon's supercool hitman from Melville's Le Samourai, but while some prefer the original, here I favor the follower. I guess I just like cartoonish characters more.
Signature line: "When one has made a decision to kill a person, even if it will be very difficult to succeed by advancing straight ahead, it will not do to think about doing it in a long, roundabout way. One's heart may slacken, he may miss his chance, and by and large there will be no success. The Way of the Samurai is one of immediacy, and it is best to dash in headlong. "
El Chivo in Amores perros (2000, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñártitu)
While Ghost Dog is into pigeons, El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría) is into dogs, including one he rescues from the film's central car crash. And like the other protagonists in the three-part film, El Chivo becomes represented by a dog, specifically that one he rescues. For El Chivo, the dog that parallels him is a formerly tame animal that has gone through a violent training and lifestyle and is now a killing machine. And that describes this hitman, who was formerly a professor and then a guerrilla fighter and now kills, even though its not necessary for his survival (except in the form of earnings). Fortunately, there is hope for both the man and the dog ...
Signature line: "I'm a living ghost."
Harlen Maguire in Road to Perdition (2002, Sam Mendes)
There isn't much hope for Jude Law's Harlen Maguire, who is dispatched to kill Tom Hanks and son in this underrated graphic novel adaptation. But in a movie that features such heavies as Hanks and Paul Newman, the supporting character is the most interesting part. The neat thing about Maguire is that he wasn't in the original comic; he was invented by screenwriter David Self. And what an invention he is! Aside from having dual occupations -- crime scene photographer and hitman -- Maguire was given plenty of physical characteristics to make him more interesting, too, including some really awful teeth. If only Mendes had spent more time with him and less time showing us lame learning-to-drive montages.
Signature line: "I shoot the dead. Dead bodies, that is. I don't kill them."
Charlie in Nurse Betty (2000, Neil LaBute)
It was hard for me to decide if I favored Morgan Freeman's Charlie or Chris Rock's Wesley. One is the old, experienced hitman while the other is his young, smart-alecky partner. Each has some really funny lines, but in the end I choose Charlie because despite his wisdom and seasoning, he's the one who stupidly falls in love with his mark (Renée Zellweger). Sure, the sensitivity he exhibits becomes his downfall, but at least we get to see he has a sensitive side.
Signature line: "Slow down: blonde, thin, yeah. Did they say anything about style? Did they mention grace?"
Dakota Parker in The 51st State (aka Formula 51) (2001, Ronny Yu)
This isn't a great movie nor is it a great character, but I wanted to show some love for the rare role of hitwoman, and well, I think Emily Mortimer is a lot more attractive than some other hitwomen/assassins. You all can have your Nikita, Mrs. Smith, The Bride and Kathleen Turner in Prizzi's Honor. I'd much rather hire Dakota for the job.
Signature line: "I don't do alive, I do dead."