From The Killers (1946) to Collateral (2004), these are some of the best assassin movies.
(Updated: Sept 26, 2022) 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 Killers (1946)
Based on a short story of the same name by Ernst Hemingway, Robert Siodmak’s 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 (Burt Lancaster). As the investigation commences, details about Lund’s life emerge, and his relationship with Kitty (Ava Gardner), 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.
German-born filmmaker Robert Siodmak brought a German expressionist touch to the noir visuals. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director. It’s said to have pleased even author Hemingway, who was rather disdainful of Hollywood adaptations. The Killers marks the acting debut of the phenomenal Hollywood actor Burt Lancaster. The 1927 Hemingway story was once again adapted for a movie in 1964 by Don Siegel.
2. Le Samourai (1967)
Jean-Pierre Melville in his 1967 masterpiece Le Samourai offers a deeply contemplative portrait of an assassin. The film revolves around Alain Delon’s Jef Costello, a lone-wolf contract killer. He wears a long trench coat like a film noir hero. Though he kills people with cold efficiency, he lives with a moral code. In some ways, we can sense that the assassin’s principles can lead to his downfall. It’s what gradually happens when a hit goes slightly wrong.
Le Samourai is one of the most influential movies ever made. On the stylistic front, its stark minimalism was emulated in films like Ghost Dog (1999), Thief (1981), and No Country for Old Men (2007). The brooding anti-hero Jef Costello inspired central characters in movies like The Killer (1989), Leon (1994), and Drive (2011). While stories about assassins are generally conceived as crime dramas or thrillers, Melville had the courage to turn it into an intriguing character study. Overall, Le Samourai is a tale about a callous man in an unforgiving world.
3. The Killer (1989)
Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo’s intoxicating action cinema was heavily inspired by Melville’s neo-noir films. The narrative revolves around a self-possessed assassin named Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat). During a contract job in a nightclub, he accidentally blinds the club’s singer. Consumed by guilt, Jong befriends her and takes care of her. He takes one final hit job in order to get her operated for an expensive cornea transplant abroad. Jong’s plans, however, are thwarted by his triad boss and a competent police detective.
The Killer is a fantastic mix of melodrama, vivid characterizations, and over-the-top shoot-outs. While Le Samourai is more grounded and downbeat assassin cinema, The Killer provides an entertaining tale of male bonding and honour. The balletic action choreography has influenced plenty of action movies in the subsequent decades. In fact, there’s no John Wick without the rapturous gun plays from the John Woo movies.
4. 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. Many of the tropes Luc Besson used here are repeated in the director’s American debut Leon (1994). Besson made another hitwoman movie in 2019 titled Anna. It was, however, a critical and commercial flop.
5. 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 is 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. At the same time, Besson perfectly delivers on the thrilling action sequences. Leon made Besson popular in the Hollywood action genre circuits, which led to the making of another blockbuster titled The Fifth Element.
6. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Who can forget John Travolta and Samuel Jackson’s hitmen character in Quentin Tarantino’s postmodern masterpiece. Travolta played the ruthless yet clumsy assassin Vincent Vega. Samuel Jackson was perfect in the role of Jules Winnifeld, a burger and philosophy-loving hitman. They are sent to retrieve a stolen briefcase on behalf of their employer and mob boss Marsellus Wallace. Vincent and Jules do their jobs without a problem, until a man out of nowhere fires at them. Fortunately, the man misses all of his shots. Now Jules has an epiphany, whereas Vincent simply continues his work. Their choices affect their lives in surprising ways.
Both Vincent Vega and Jules are contrasting personalities. One can safely say that Vincent is the reason for many of the violent conflicts in the narrative. While assassins are often portrayed as either heroes or villains, in Pulp Fiction Vincent and Jules are barely competent in their job.
7. 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. It has the same structure and aesthetic conventions the filmmaker previously followed in his critically acclaimed feature Chungking Express (1994). 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. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle inventively uses the tight urban spaces to define the character’s alienation and isolation. Wong-Kar Wai’s expressionistic and bright style of filmmaking is a welcome surprise, and fans of his work will enjoy the understated storytelling.
8. 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, who is an enigmatic assassin employed by the Mafia. Forest Whitaker’s serene screen presence in the titular role has us emotionally invested in the story. His assassin character strictly follows the ancient code of the samurai, known as ‘Bushido’. Ghost Dog’s 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 offers a poignant 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. In fact, it is hard not to sympathise 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.
9. Collateral (2004)
Michael Mann is one of the versatile Hollywood filmmakers. He constantly finds new ways to tackle interesting subjects and narratives. In his neo-noir crime thriller Collateral, Mann infuses immense tension giving us two contrasting personalities. One is the handsome sociopathic contract killer named Vincent. The other is a struggling taxi driver named Max. Vincent hires Max to take him around L.A. in order to finish an alleged real estate deal. But the intimidating assassin coolly moves through the city, finishing one target after another.
When Max understands the real nature of Vincent’s visit, he gradually finds the inner strength to oppose him. Collateral offers a brilliant cinematic experience that’s strengthened by Tom Cruise’s portrayal of a cynical, philosophising hit man. While the action sequences are wonderfully choreographed, the best parts of Collateral are the intense conversations between its two lead characters. Shot on location, the shimmering night-time streets of Los Angeles showcases Mann’s gift for creating stylish atmospheres.
10. No Country for Old Man (2007)
Crime, action and Western genre 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.
Based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name, No Country for Old Men is a classic tale of good vs evil, and humanity vs greed. Coen brothers narrates such a familiar yet powerful tale with stunning precision and grounds it in the unflinching real-world scenario. The film was lauded for its direction and acting, winning four Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture. Javier Bardem’s menacing portrayal of Anton Chigurh makes him one of the most terrifying villains in movie history.
11. In Bruges (2008)
In Bruges follows two killers, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) who are lying low in the city of Bruges in Belgium. Their recent assignment has gone wrong. When their boss Harry tasks one of them with killing the other, black humour and chaos ensue as the pair have misadventures, new experiences and escapades while being on the run from their boss. The film subverts the tropes of assassins as ruthless, stoic-faced killers.
It is a delight to see them depicted in a jovial, and in an almost normal manner. Director Martin McDonagh also writes perfectly fleshed-out characters. The dynamics 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 on the surface, but has a lot to offer. Consider yourself warned, the friendship between Ray and Ken will probably make you hold back some tears.
12. Looper (2012)
Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon Levitt play the central roles in this time-travelling thriller flick. The film is a fantastic blend of the mind-bending paradoxes of sci-fi and the twists and turns of an action film. Looper 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 the machine for the purpose of killing targets who have been sent back in time. One such looper, Joe, finds himself in a bind when he discovers that the person he has to kill is his older self.
Rian Johnson’s script and direction balances existential questions with few interesting genre staples. Moreover, the tense action sequences turn Looper into a refreshing entertainment flick. Rian Johson previously made Brick (2005) with Joseph-Gordon Levitt, where he mixed highschool drama genre with film noir. Similarly, Looper was a brilliant exercise in genre-bending.
13. John Wick Trilogy (2014, 2015, 2017)
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.
Since the original John Wick was a huge hit and allowed Keanu Reeves to once again reinvent himself as an action hero after The Matrix, the sequels were inevitable. Two sequels have already been released emulating the original’s success, and the next one is all set to release in 2023. The noir inspired visuals and exciting action scenes, coupled with solid performances from Keanu Reeves turns it into one of the best action franchises of the 21st century.
14. Sicario (2015)
Boasting a star-studded cast of Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin and Jonathan Bernthal, Denis Villeneuve’s 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 (Benicio Del Toro). Things are not as they seem and the elusive Gillick may have a close connection to drug lord Alarcon. Del Toro’s portrayal of Gillick, a Colombian lawyer turned assassin, stands out in particular. His wife and daughter are killed due to cartel violence.
Del Toro’s performance challenges the Latino stereotypes of Hollywood cinema. 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. Sicario is followed by the sequel Day of the Soldado. Del Toro played the chief role in the sequel, although the film was underwhelming. That’s largely because of its convoluted narrative and absence of Denis Villeneuve.
15. The Irishman (2019)
The two legendary actors of cinema, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino come together in a movie for the fourth time in Martin Scorses’s epic gangster movie The Irishman. However, technically this was the first good movie where they shared screen space for a longer time. In Godfather II, they play characters from different eras, whereas in Heat they only face each other in two sequences. Righteous Kill is a stale, easily forgettable crime thriller.
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.
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 humour and catharsis in even the most incredible acts of violence. Charming, dangerous and always deadly, the assassins of cinema are clearly here to stay. If you have liked the aforementioned movies, check out Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), Road to Perdition (2002), The Villainess (2017), The Assassin (2015), Kill List (2011), and Killing Them Softly (2012).
Which of these films have you ticked off your list? What are your favourite assassin films? Tell us in the comments below.
(Additional writing by Arun Kumar)