Love them or hate them, there is something deeply cinematic about the figure of the assassin. Brooding, dangerous and swathed in shadows, they bring death and destruction with them wherever they go. The figure of the killer for hire has long been a staple in films. They represent an unemotional, harsh and morally grey area that is at once disturbing and delightful to explore on screen. One of cinema’s first assassin figures was played by Alan Ladd in the 1942 thriller, This Gun for Hire. Since then, audiences have been besotted with the nuanced portrayals of violence, law, reason and morality that assassin movies have to offer. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the on-screen killings are executed in stylish, action-filled sequences.
More recently, filmmakers have taken the trope of the assassin and assassin films and updated them into multiple genres. From revenge thrillers and tales of lost love to black comedies, there is something on offer for everyone. Let’s take a look at our list of the best assassin movies.
1. The Irishman (2019)
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino’s fifth collaboration together (after The Godfather II, Heat, Righteous Kill, Final Cut), The Irishman is based on the true story of the killing of Jimmy Hoffa. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film depicts Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran’s (De Niro) involvement with the Bufalino Crime family and Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), a powerful Union Leader. Changing circumstances lead to Sheeran being tasked with killing Hoffa. The film is a bonafide tour de force of powerhouse performances and is full of classic Scorsese motifs.
The story of two morally grey men dealing with their friendship in conflicted ways is wonderfully well-depicted. The dynamic between De Niro and Al Pacino as the leading men lends pathos and believability to the central premise. The nuanced depiction of crime, violence, and the complicated relationship between Hoffa and Sheeran is, undoubtedly, the greatest strength of the film.
2. Leon: The Professional (1994)
Luc Besson has long delighted in creating complicated figures like tortured killers and charming crooks. His work is often rife with figures occupying the shadowy recesses of society, and the dramatis personae of Leon: The Professional are no different. The film revolves around a young girl, Matilda, and a hitman named Leon, who are brought together after corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield kills Matilda’s entire family. Matilda convinces Leon to train her as a killer so that she can avenge her family. The film is grounded by the immensely warm and unusual bond between Matilda and Leon. Assassin films can so often fall into the trap of mindless bloodbaths and generic violence, but great performances from Natalie Portman, Jean Reno and Gary Oldman’s over-the-top villain provide much needed levity to the film.
3. Sicario (2015)
Boasting a star-studded cast of Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin and Jordan Peele, Sicario follows FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) on a mission against Mexican drug cartels. She is drawn into an operation with CIA agents Matt Graver and Alejandro Gillick. Things are not as they seem and the elusive Gillick may have a close connection to drug lord Alarcon. Gritty, dark and relentless, the film is a visual treat. The fast-paced action scenes are perfectly complemented by the cast. Del Toro’s portrayal of Gillick, a lawyer turned assassin, stands out in particular. The film, which literally translates to hitman in Spanish, does a wonderful job of portraying drug lords, assassins and law enforcement as morally compromised and murky.
4. Fallen Angels (1995)
Directed by legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, Fallen Angels is an overlapping narrative of two stories set in the bustling city of Hong Kong. The first story revolves around a hitman, Wong, and an unnamed woman who he calls his partner. The second story focuses on a delinquent named Ho who lives in the same building as Wong’s partner does. While assassins and criminals in films are often reduced to cold, unfeeling figures, Fallen Angels explores the banality of their day-to-day lives and witnesses them form friendships and fall in love. Wai’s expressionistic and bright style of filmmaking is a welcome surprise, and fans of his work will enjoy the understated storytelling and common themes similar to previous films like Chungking Express.
5. John Wick
Cinema has given assassins a plethora of reasons for doing what they do — dead spouses, betrayal, revenge and thrill seeking are classic mainstays. John Wick upends this trope by having the titular character, a hardened elite assassin, come out of retirement to avenge the murder of his dog. Played by Keanu Reeves, John Wick is on a mission to kill Iosef, the man responsible for the loss of his dog. Iosef happens to be the son of his former boss, Viggo. With a bounty on his head, and demons of his own, he sets out to get vengeance, shooting, stabbing and beating the snot out of everything in his way. The noir inspired visuals and exciting action scenes, coupled with solid performances from Reeves, Alfie Allen and Willem Dafoe have won the film critical and commercial success.
6. La Femme Nikita (1990)
One of Luc Besson’s most memorable works, La Femme Nikita sees the director at the top of his game. The film revolves around Nikita, who is sentenced to prison after killing a policeman during a robbery. However, her handlers fake her death and train her as an elite assassin instead. Her dysfunctional life is thrown into chaos when a mission goes awry. In the middle of helping Viktor, a hardened operative clean up the evidence, her personal life is constantly endangered due to the double life she’s been leading. La Femme Nikita is equal parts hilarious, addictive and disturbing. Anne Parillaud’s performance and Besson’s quirky style of direction have been instrumental in transforming Nikita into a femme fatale for the modern age.
7. Looper (2012)
Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon Levitt star in this time-travelling thriller flick that is a fantastic blend of the mind- bending loopholes of sci-fi and the twists and turns of an action film. The film is set in the distant future, where technology has progressed to the point of time travel, although it is still illegal. Assassins called loopers use this to kill targets who have been sent back in time. One such looper, Joe, finds himself in a bind when he has to kill his older version.
Rian Johnson’s script and direction balances existential questions with genre staples like action and visuals, making Looper a refreshingly original film. The noir influences and ambitious scope of the film are a wonderful update.
8. In Bruges (2008)
In Bruges follows two killers, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) who are laying low in the city of Bruges after an assignment gone awry. When their boss Harry tasks one of them with killing the other, hilarity and chaos ensue as the pair have misadventures, new experiences and escapades on the run from their boss. The film subverts the tropes of assassins as cold, robotic killers. It is a delight to see them depicted in a jovial, almost normal manner, which allows them to be fleshed out characters. The dynamic between Ray and Ken is heartwarming. Even Ralph Fiennes shines as the irascible and oddly principled boss. All in all, In Bruges is the type of film which may seem light-hearted, but has a lot to offer. Consider yourself warned, the friendship between Ray and Ken will probably make you hold back some tears.
9. The Killers (1964)
Based on a short story of the same name by Ernst Hemingway, The Killers is considered a classic film of the noir genre. It revolves around Reardon, an insurance agent who is tasked with investigating the death of a man named Pete Lund. As the investigation commences, details about Lund’s life emerge, and his relationship with Kitty, a glamorous woman with criminal ties is particularly suspicious. The film is part noir thriller, and part detective mystery, as the audience accompanies Reardon as he solves the case and finds Pete’s killer. The film won multiple accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Director and is said to have pleased even Hemingway, who was rather disdainful of Hollywood adaptations.
10. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Crime, action and Westerns collide in the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, which follows two men and their search for money in the Texas desert. Llewlyn Moss, a Vietnam War veteran comes across a large sum of money in the desert. Meanwhile, Anton Chigurh, a hitman, is tasked with recovering the money. The film follows the two men on a cat-and-mouse chase, replete with astounding bloodbaths in the arid, West Texas landscape. A classic tale of good vs evil, and humanity vs greed is told with stunning precision and an eye for realism. The film was lauded for its direction and acting, winning four Academy Awards. For his portrayal of unethical hitman Chigurh, Bardem won the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.
11. Breathless (1960)
This Korean film follows an immoral gangster, Sang Hoon, who works for his longtime friend and loan shark, Man-Sik. His life is turned upside down when he forms an unusual bond with a schoolgirl named Yeon-Hee. Through their bond, he is able to explore his past traumas and come to terms with the difficult relationship he shares with his abusive father. The film does a brilliant job of depicting the hard truths and messy realities of a life of crime, yet it never judges the characters for their actions. A humble story and understated performances are the film’s greatest strengths. The narrative is fairly straightforward, and prioritizes interpersonal dynamics among the characters over mindless bloodshed and action.
12. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, Ghost Dog is a crime drama that follows the title character, an enigmatic assassin employed by the Mafia. His loyalties and beliefs are put to the test as his boss turns against him, and sends out an order for his killing. The film is wonderfully weird, and a touching look at the inherent loneliness of the human condition. Each character in the film is yearning for something greater in the middle of the crime and the violence of their lives, and it is hard not to sympathize with them, despite their actions. Inspired by Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, Ghost Dog is a sweet, funny and heartbreaking examination of solitude and human connections that can be found in even the most sordid of places.
Here we are, then! These are some of the best assassin movies that should be on your watchlist. With slick action, thrilling chases and an aura of danger and anticipation, assassin films are grand and heartbreaking in their scope. Tragedies, betrayals and even dysfunctional families find a place in the genre. While some films focus on the amorality of the assassin trope, others find light-hearted humor and catharsis in even the most incredible acts of violence. Charming, dangerous and always deadly, the assassins of cinema are clearly here to stay. Which of these films have you ticked off your list? What are your favorite assassin films? Tell us in the comments below.
An avid reader and a life-long lover of blue skies, I like to spend my time with obscure poetry and dissecting films. Currently besotted with Maupassant, art history and all things Nolan, you can find me spacing out to Queen while I look for new things to obsess with.