Total Recall: Thank Goodness For Hit Men
This Thanksgiving Day, take a moment to think about all those underappreciated assassins, just like the pilgrims used to.
For vicarious thrills, it's hard to top movies about contract killers. There's something fascinating about watching characters that operate in shadowy territory, following their own unyielding codes of ethics, getting into and out of danger on the strength of their wits. Movies about hitmen swim in moral ambiguity, asking audiences to identify with, or even root for, people who are in the business of killing. Cinemagoers have long had obsessions with contract killers -- even if they were one-dimensional characters, so long as they looked cool (Boba Fett, anyone?). But in the past decades, they've been flying out of the margins in a big way, discovering some personality and taking on lives of their own.
After cutting his teeth on drama and action flicks like The Big Blue (67 percent on the Tomatometer) and La Femme Nikita (82 percent), director Luc Besson hit his groove with 1994's Léon (aka The Professional, 72 percent). Jean Reno stars as the titular character, a withdrawn hitman saddled with an orphaned 12-year-old (Natalie Portman) after her family is slaughtered by a corrupt cop (Gary Oldman). The cast and crew were firing on all cylinders with this one: Reno's befuddled French guy and Portman's tomboy pixie acts are endearing; Oldman makes even something as mundane as taking a pill amusingly bombastic; and Besson's trademark action scenes never felt as casually cool as they did here, especially Léon's climatic fight defending his apartment. "Luc Besson's lone-hitman thriller sees a 12 year-old Natalie Portman push the boundaries of love and pedophilia," writes Shannon J. Harvey of Australia's Sunday Times, "[It's] as emotionally complex as it is a slick action thrill-ride."
1994 proved to be a banner year for hitmen public relations. Not only did Léon strive to show a killer in a sympathetic light, but Quentin Tarantino also fine-tuned their image in Pulp Fiction (96 percent), presenting hitmen not as just mere antagonists who showed up, did their dirty work, and then disappeared. Pulp Fiction's killers (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) were out-and-out bad dudes, but Tarantino also delved into their lives before and after murder gigs, creating a portrait of two otherwise regular guys who suffered mid-career crises and engaged in trite conversations.
The Léon trailer.