Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: The Hit (1984)

The Hit (1984)
Directed by: Stephen Frears.
Written by: Peter Prince.
Starring: John Hurt (Braddock), Terence Stamp (Willie Parker), Tim Roth (Myron), Laura del Sol (Maggie), Fernando Rey (Senior Policeman), Lennie Peters (Mr. Corrigan), Bernie Searle (Hopwood), Brian Royal (Fellows), Albie Woodington (Riordan), Jim Broadbent (Barrister).

The Hit is a strangely philosophical British gangster film. I wasn’t quite prepared for the film when it started, thinking it was going to a hardboiled thriller akin to something like The Long Good Friday (1980) or Mona Lisa (1986). Instead, I got a strange film – darkly comic, slow moving, ponderous, at times pretentious, and at times quietly profound. I’m not sure the movie is entirely successful – but it certainly is different.

The movie opens with Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) standing up in court and ratting out all his gangster friends. As he steps off the stand, the defendants he has just sold out stand up and start singing “We’ll meet again”, as the boss, Corrigan (Lennie Peters) looks on. This is, as far as I can recall, the only time Corrigan is on screen in the entire movie, but Peters strange, scarred face hangs over the rest of it. You need someone that looks this mean and hard for the film to work as it does.

Flash forward 10 years, and Willie is living a quiet life in Spain – until he is kidnapped by local youth toughs, and handed over to Braddock (John Hurt) and his rookie partner Myron (Tim Roth). They work for Corrigan, now out of prison, and waiting for them in Paris. Everyone knows what will happen when they get there – Willie will be killed. And along the way, they run into some trouble with another gangster, and kill him, but Braddock cannot bring himself to kill his hooker girlfriend Maggie (Laura Del Sol), so she gets dragged along with them on their strange journey through Spain, on route to Willie’s death – and probably Maggie’s as well.

Terence Stamp has always been an interesting actor, and here he has a strange, difficult role, that he pulls off. If you have a vision of what a gangster who rats out his friends would look like, then Stamp fits the bill perfectly – he has often played bad guys in the past. But his Willie is different. In the 10 years since he sold his friends out, he has spent a lot of time thinking and reading – and he seems ready to accept death. He has the chance to escape and he doesn’t, knowing that it wouldn’t really do him any good. He has been waiting for this, and seems to accept his fate. Yet, Willie isn’t as completely Zen in his reasoning as he appears to be, and herein lies the complexity for him. He admits he only sold out his friends because he couldn’t face jail time, and when his moment to truly accept death comes, he doesn’t handle it well. He is never quite what we think he is.

Tim Roth, in his first major role, is also excellent as the na├»ve, first timer Myron. He breaks the first rule of being a hitman, in that he actually starts to like Willie – even asking him why there are so many castles in the country, and joking with him. Roth, who can be as scary as any actor alive, makes his Myron into an innocent, likable idiot.

But for me, what keeps The Hit from being a great movie is that the other two people on this journey never really snap into focus. Laura Del Sol is just kind of there – along for the ride. She obviously wants to survive, and she tries to talk her way out of her death, but she doesn’t really add much. And John Hurt, who is given very little to say, never becomes the complex character he should be. He’s fine in the role, but there isn’t enough there. And I was also disappointed that they cast the great Fernando Rey as a Spanish cop, and then didn’t give him anything to do.

Directed by Stephen Frears (who has gone onto have a great career, that largely started here), he finds the right tone for the Peter Prince’s screenplay. This isn’t a hardboiled gangster film, but something else entirely. And while I don’t think it’s a great film, it’s one that held my interest throughout, and was surprisingly insightful. I liked The Hit – but everyone involved has done better.

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