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Movie Cliché Police: Hitman and Assassin Movies

Be they from a shady government organization or a former military man shedding some blood on the side, hitmen and assassins are staples of Hollywood action flicks and adhere to any number of overdone clichés. 

Looking to shake things up a bit this Friday is Stand Up Guys starring Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin. The story line follows a former mobster who after years in prison is marked for death. The catch? His ex-partner has been contracted to carry out the hit in one night. 

So we’re going to rundown the 10 most overused clichés from this genre and slap the cuffs on the worst perpetrators. Let’s bring the noise. 


10. Agrees to One Last Job – 5 (frequency of cliché from this list of films) 

Movie nugget number one: if you’ve bowed out of a life of crime and are about to run off, keep your word. When Big Danny rings you up at your secluded mountain cabin and offers you a suitcase packed with cash to carry out one last task, hang that sucker up and continue watching your stories. For all those involved, dragging an out-of-the-game assassin back into the limelight means a lot of betrayal, bloodshed and a trail of bodies. 

Citation Issued To: The Killer, The American, Assassins 


9. Becomes Entangled in a Government Conspiracy – 7 

When things are going really bad – worse than usual — it’s a safe assumption there is something bigger at play. And I’m not talking about fate or destiny or any of that crap. Likely there is a powerful, off-the-books government agency pulling the strings and looking to burn our wayward killer for any number of reasons. Maybe they know too much, pulled the wrong side-job, killed the wrong person, etc. Whatever the reason, it will inevitably come down to our antihero to topple the entity singlehandedly, proving once again that secret organizations tasked with covering up some big secret are among the most inept conglomerates in Hollywood film. 

Citation Issued For: The Bourne Quadrilogy  

8. Sacrifices Themself in the End – 8 

What better way to justify your life of evil than by giving up the ghost in a heroic (and badass) fashion? That’s right, there is no better way. These noble sacrifices normally go hand in hand with another cliché we’ll discuss later on, but needless to say when the stakes are high the good death is always on the table. There are very few movies of this ilk that conclude as things would in real life; the hitman is never simply overwhelmed and taken down. The happy ending (or at least satisfying one) is almost always the go to over a tragic one. 

Citation Issued To: *records locked due to spoilers* 


7. Questions the Target/Mission – 10 

Nothing warms the blood of an assassin quicker than looking through the scope of a high powered rifle and seeing a lovely lady in the crosshairs, kicking in the door of a dark house only to find a child, or receiving a kill list only to find their partners' name. Few films like these chronicle the actual process of a killer. Instead we get subjected to huge kinks being thrown into the mix which inevitably blow up (often literally) in everyone’s face. 

Citation Issued To: The Replacement Killers, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Lucky Number Slevin

6. Botches a Job – 12 

Botching a hit never makes a hitman look very good, costs money and all around gets ugly really fast for those involved. There are few second chances in the world of murder for hire and if you allow your target to slip past when one chance was all you had, then you might as well grow out that beard and head for the mountains. 

This is something we see a lot of in hitmen and assassin movies but rarely in a creative way. Even in the films where the hero is a good guy and bests the assasin-antagonist, which chalks up to another failure for the professional. Of course having the assassin successfully murder the lead every time in the first five minutes would kind of make for shortened running times,  so you get my point. 

Citation Issued To: In Bruges, Collateral, The American 


5. Wants Out of the Life – 14 

This is often the precursor to cliché number 10. The crime boss will be laughing in the face of murderer x as he voices his wish to stop all the killing and buy a boat and sail around the world. This cliché is yet another jumping off point for our assassin to kill a whole lot of people and eliminate that pesky “realistic” body count. 

Citation Issued For: Bangkok Dangerous, Pulp Fiction, The Killer 


4. Turns on His/Her/Their Former Boss/Organization – 15 (Tie) 

Actually a little less frequent of an occurrence than I initially may have guessed, the vengeful killer getting back at the man/men is still a staple of a huge number of films from this genre. The reason for the persistence of this trope is easy to surmise as this act is directly linked to pretty much every other cliché on this list. Want out of the life? Oops, you need to kill your boss. Botch a job? Oops, better kill everyone before they kill you. 

On the positive side however, this cliché at least has ample chance to be interesting. It comes down to how strongly the dynamic between mentor and protégée is written. Craft it into a melancholy endeavor with some great repartee and you’re golden. Make it an excuse for mayhem and you’re, well, crimson. 

Citation Issued For: Wanted, Road to Perdition, Hitman


3. Falls in Love – 15 

Awww, the hitman with a heart of gold – that old softy. Often going hand in hand with cliché seven, the discovery that your target is a beautiful woman may cause you to think twice about making her wall the same shade as her lipstick. Likewise, if things get hairy and our killer is forced into sultry cahoots, expect steely resolve to turn into puppy dog eyes. Does he deserve love? Can men like him ever love? Can he protect her? The overdone list goes on. Even as a means to have our killer set out for revenge at the onset of her demise, or as a plot device to show the ruthlessness of the bad guys when she’s killed in his arms, the damsel in distress is ingrained in this genre. 

Citation Issued For: Grosse Point Blank, The Professional, Assassins


2. Apprentice/Civilian Joins Forces – 16 

Having the potential to lead into the previous cliché, the “thrown into the fire” metaphor is the meat and bones of the genre. For how solitary and distant most hitmen are portrayed, they seem to find themselves on the run with a companion an awful lot. These pairings can range anywhere from a fellow target to a former friend to a random individual. In some cases they become a love interest, in others a student, but what remains consistent is the fact that these men in arms rarely end up at it alone. 

Citation Issued For: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Legacy, The Professional


1. Goes on the Run – 20 

And here it is, what I glean to be the most prevalent cliché in the genre, and is in fact the simplest of the bunch in terms of what it entails. We’re not talking about some simple slipping away into obscurity, no sir. We’re chatting about a globe-trotting journey of explosions and bloodshed where cops are oblivious, allies and supplies come as easily as rain, and nowhere is safe for anyone involved.

Of course common sense would dictate that when one or more killers are tracking you down after doing something someone didn’t find favorable, you would hit the road. But the scope of the pursuit and the consistency of that scope in these films is noteworthy. These guys are in the wind more than dust and leaves.                     

Citation Issued For: Hanna, Bangkok Dangerous, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai 

Are these movies doomed from inception to be riddled with contrivance? Perhaps a little. In fact there were some fantastic movies that ranked fairly high in number of citations from The Bourne Series to Looper to In Bruges – think about it. What makes those films great is that they both embrace the clichés of the genre while mixing them up at the same time. However, the worst movies merely substitute plot for these clichés, relying on them to be held up solely by action sequences and one-liners. This genre doesn’t need to turn away from these rituals but rather find a fun an inventive way to approach them.


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