By strict dictionary definition, an assassin is "a murderer of an important person in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons." In common language, though, the word has been appropriated to mean all kinds of unprincipled killers, and the movies have followed suit. For example, The Losers, out wide this weekend, features a skilled marksman known as Cougar (Oscar Jaeneda), who can kill with precision from hundreds of feet away. Sounds like an assassin to me!
The lines between assassin, murderer, and killer become even blurrier in science fiction. If a creature is defending itself, or hungry for its next meal, is that murder? So I did my best to leave alien creatures off this list of the most murderous inventions ever seen on the screen by yours truly.
1. Michael Madsen, Species
Madsen brings a welcome, everyman quality to his character, called Preston Lennox. When Forest Whitaker uses his gift as an empath to discern Preston's true role in the operation, Preston replies: "No one ever asked me to find anything they didn't want dead." Killing is just another part of his job. He's not a single-minded assassin; he doesn't ignore the charms of a beautiful medical teammate (Marg Helgenberger), for example, and he exercises common sense along with his street smarts and his deadly way with firearms. His practical approach to assassinating the runaway laboratory creation Sil (Natasha Henstridge) is what makes him so dangerous and effective.
2. Robert DeNiro, Brazil
True, Harry Tuttle is more of an activist, or a revolutionary, or even a terrorist in the eyes of the government, than an assassin. But when you have Robert DeNiro embodying the role, dashing in and zipping out like a whirling, mysterious dervish, and you end up with a body or two, it's easy to think of him as a heroic assassin, saving the day for a higher purpose.
3. The Twins, The Matrix Reloaded
I'm not a particular fan of the movie as a whole, but some of the bits and pieces are so daring and breathtaking that I can't help but cheer at the sight of them. Such as, for example, the terrible twosome, long haired and Albino, smiling and shape-shifting and altogether confounding as they attempt to take out our beloved Neo and/or all of his associates.
4. Alan Cumming, X2: X-Men United
In the electrifying opening sequence, Nightcrawler attempts to assassinate the President of the United States. He's an elusive, maddening, and frightening apparition -- and well-motivated, to boot! Later, through Cumming's portrayal, we get to understand and sympathize with the principled killer, which doesn't make him any less lethal.
5. Ray Park, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
As dispiriting as George Lucas' return to directing proved to be, Ray Park as Darth Maul proved to be a rare bright spot, just because he looked so damned bad-ass in that red and black makeup. And don't tell me that Darth Maul was anything but an assassin, the wicked enforcer for Darth Sidious.
6. Hugo Weaving, V for Vendetta
Here we have a righteous assassin, taking action to further a political agenda inspired by personal experience. Like Harry Tuttle in Brazil, V did not begin on the wrong side of the law, and he's not really conscious of crossing the line. He knows what needs to be done, at least in his own eyes, and is determined to see it through, come what may.
7. Robert Patrick, Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Kristanna Loken looked the hottest, with her red leather outfit, and Arnold Schwarzenegger looked the meanest, in his black leather jacket, but Robert Patrick looked the most menacing, in my book, because he didn't appear to be a match for anybody. Again, similar to Michael Madsen in Species but to a greater degree, it's Patrick's ordinary appearance that makes his deadly instincts so disconcerting. And, of course, he keeps on changing shapes and voices, so that keeps the proceedings continually off balance.
8. ?, Watchmen
This is a tough one to write about without spoiling major elements of the plot, but assassination is one of the key elements that drive the story forward, from the opening scene (The Comedian's fatal fall) through the title sequence (who shot JFK) and on and on. Suffice it to say that it's woven well into the fabric of the film.
9. HAL 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Now you might say I'm crazy for including a computer, and you're probably right, but HAL is motivated not by personal reasons but by political ones, albeit through instructions from his human operators. HAL is also chillingly effective, and the only way to stop him is to pull the plug in a "kill or be killed" scenario. So that makes him a deadly assassin.
10. The Id, Forbidden Planet
In for a penny, in for a pound, so now that I've gone out on a limb with HAL, I might as well fall off the tree entirely with my favorite assassin from the 1950s. Jacob Hill, in his recent and excellent consideration of the film, avoided spoiling the presence of The Id, but, outdated psychological theories and all, The Id burrowed its way into my brain as a kid and will never, ever leave.