A hitman has what is perhaps the oddest profession in the world—they are people paid money to kill people. Known technically as “contract killing,” the hitman enters an illegal agreement with a person or group that desires to eliminate someone but also wants to distance themselves from the crime as far as things such as fingerprints and other forensic evidence go. The party who pays the hitman may be an individual with a vendetta—say, a husband who has discovered his wife has been cheating—or a criminal organization, or even a government that seeks to dispatch of political enemies through the use of undercover intelligence agencies.
In the 1930s and 1940s, a gang known as Murder, Inc. committed countless contract murders on behalf of the National Crime Syndicate. Legendary mobster Bugsy Siegel was one of Murder, Inc.’s most famous hitmen.
From the day he first killed in 1948 until the day of his arrest in 1986, New Jersey-based mob enforcer Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski dispassionately killed anywhere from 100-200 people, mostly by using cyanide.
Here are some prime examples of films from the early 1940s to the present where hitmen and contract killing are crucial plot elements.
Based on British author Graham Greene’s 1936 novel A Gun for Sale—which was released in America as This Gun for Hire—this American thriller is not only one of the first true films noir, it is also one of the earliest American films that is specifically set during World War II, seeing as how it premiered only six months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor dragged the USA into the war. Alan Ladd stars as hitman Philip Raven, who has a soft spot for children and cats but is also a coldblooded contract killer. After he murders a blackmailer, the man who contracted him pays him in marked bills, which places the police on Raven’s trail. Along the way he meets a beautiful blonde dancer named Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), who is the girlfriend of a police lieutenant (Robert Preston), who’s investigating Philip Raven’s criminal activities.
This Alfred Hitchcock thriller stars Ray Milland as British pro tennis player Tony Wendice, whose wife Margot (Grace Kelly) cheated on him with an American writer named Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) while Tony was on tour. At first, Tony wants to kill Mary, but he realizes that if he hires someone else to kill her, he can inherit her vast fortune. He seeks the aid of a former schoolmate named Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) to enter his flat and kill his wife while Tony and Mark are at dinner. But Swann bungles the hit and winds up being killed by Margot, who is imprisoned for Swann’s murder. Meanwhile, Mark works with police to exonerate Margot for the killing and to uncover Tony’s sinister plot.
In this remake to the 1946 film version of an Ernest Hemingway short story, two hitmen (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) are paid to kill professional race-car driver Johnny North (John Cassavettes) but are perplexed by the fact that their victim “just stood there and took it” when they shot him and didn’t try to escape or struggle. When they learn that North had been involved in a million-dollar robbery, they cross paths with a corrupt financier (Ronald Reagan) and a sultry femme fatale (Angie Dickinson).
Le Samourai (1967) is an intensely atmospheric crime thriller from French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is a hitman with a very precise style. His life begins to unravel when he is witnessed during a hit on a nightclub owner. The police investigate Costello, forcing the hitman to go on the run as he attempts to avoid law enforcement as well as the people who originally hired him for the hit. Le Samourai is a highly influential film, with elements appearing in other films such as The Killer (1989) and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999).
Branded to Kill (1967) is a visually wild Japanese film about a hitman, Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido), whose life falls into crises when he fails to complete a contract. Hanada, the third ranked killer in Japan, is then marked for death for his failure, and he is pursued by Japan’s number-one killer. Exacerbating the situation are Hanada’s homicidal wife who is having an affair with a mob boss, and Misako, the dangerous woman Hanada can’t help but fall in love with. Branded to Kill is an avant-garde masterpiece that plays on the well-known archetypes of film noir and yakuza films.
Charles Bronson stars as the grizzled and cynical 42-year-old hitman Arthur Bishop, who kills a former friend of his father named “Big” Harry McKenna. After the hit, he befriends McKenna’s son Steve (Jan Michael Vincent), who, despite the fact that Arthur has just killed his father, expresses a desire to become a hitman himself. According to screenwriter Lewis John Carlino, “”I wanted a commentary on the use of human relationships and sexual manipulation in the lives of two hired killers. It was supposed to be a chess game between the older assassin and his young apprentice. The younger man sees that he can use his sexuality to find the Achilles heel that he needs to win.” In a mostly positive review, Roger Ebert noted that although The Mechanic is an action film, “The real action in this movie is psychological—two cobras circling each other.”
The Day of the Jackal (1973) is one of the most highly praised hitman movies of all time. The film stars Edward Fox as an assassin that goes by the code name “Jackal.” In 1963, The Jackal is hired to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, the president of France. The film explores both the preparation by The Jackal as well as the attempts by the government and police who are trying to prevent the assassination plot despite de Gaulle’s insistence that his public appearance schedule not be changed. The Day of the Jackal is a smart and exhilarating thriller that sets a high mark for hitman movies.
Chow Yun-fat stars in the iconic John Woo action film The Killer (1989). Chow Yun-fat plays Ah Jong, a hitman who falls in love with a woman, Jennie (Sally Yeh), whom he accidentally blinds while performing a hit. To help get money for Jennie’s eye surgery, Ah Jong accepts one last job. The job is a setup though, and Ah Jong now finds himself on the wrong side of the Hong Kong Triad and in a complicated relationship with the police detective investigating him. The Killer has had a lasting impact on action films worldwide, and it is one of the most absolutely fun hitman movies ever.
Weekend at Bernie’s is a goofy comedy involving two men who attempt to convince everyone that their dead boss is still alive. Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser), the CEO of an insurance agency, has been committing insurance fraud. Two low-level employees, Larry and Richard (Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman), discover the fraud, but they don’t know Bernie is behind it. To hide his crimes, Bernie invites the two men to his beach house where he hires a hitman to kill them. The hitman kills Bernie instead, leading to a situation where Larry and Richard become convinced that as long as people believe Bernie is alive, the hitman (played by Don Calfa) won’t come back to kill them as well.
From French writer/director Luc Besson, La Femme Nikita (1990) is a stylish neo-noir action thriller about a young woman, Nikita (Anne Parillaud), who begins the film as a teenage criminal. Rather than face a life sentence in jail and/or death for the murder of a police officer during a robbery, Nikita is recruited by a secret government agency to be trained as an elite assassin. The movie didn’t fare well with critics upon its initial release, but it remains an iconic film beloved by audiences. Many assassin films released after La Femme Nikita take inspiration from it, and its legacy lives on through multiple adaptations and remakes including Hong Kong’s Black Cat (1991), Hollywood’s Point of No Return (1993), and television shows La Femme Nikita (1997-2001) and Nikita (2010-2013).
Luc Besson wrote and directed this oddly touching story of a 12-year-old girl named Mathilda (Natalie Portman), daughter of a drug dealer who witnesses her entire family get murdered by an insane cop (Gary Oldman). After the mass murder, Mathilda seeks refuge in the adjacent apartment of Leon (Jean Reno), an Italian-born hitman who lives alone in New York after fleeing Italy to escape vengeance for a crime he committed. They soon develop a bond, and to Leon’s surprise, the foul-mouthed and cynical Mathilda wants him to teach her about contract killing so she can get vengeance against the cop who murdered her family.
Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this homage to gangster movies and films noir, updated to Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Pulp Fiction weaves together three separate stories—“Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife,” “The Gold Watch,” and “The Bonnie Situation”—the first of which involves two hitmen (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) who are assigned to retrieve a leather suitcase that was stolen from their boss, mob kingpin Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Along the way, Travolta’s character is tasked with taking out Wallace’s wife (Uma Thurman) for the evening, fully aware that Wallace killed the last man who tried to make a move on his wife. In “The Gold Watch,” Bruce Willis plays a boxer who is paid to take a dive but accidentally kills his opponent in the ring.
Fallen Angels (1995) is a bit different from the rest of the films on this list. A hitman is indeed one of the movie’s main characters, but the movie is more concerned with an almost lyrical approach its story and its multiple characters. Leon Lai plays Wong Chi-ming, a hitman who lives a life mostly detached from other people. Wong’s relationship with his female partner is explored through breathtaking cinematography and wonderful performances. Fallen Angels also includes a loosely related second story featuring an escaped criminal (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who falls for a woman who begins to change his way of life.
John Cusack stars in the romantic comedy Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) as a hitman who takes a job near his old hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Blank’s ten-year high school reunion is taking place at the same time, and he begins to reconnect with his high-school sweetheart Debi (Minnie Driver) as the reunion draws closer. Meanwhile, Martin is being tracked by other hitmen (including Dan Aykroyd) who have a grudge against him, as well as agents from the National Security Agency. Needless to say, Martin’s plans for romance don’t go according to plan, resulting in some hilarious sequences involving action, murder, and some heartfelt romance.
Also known simply as Hitman, Contract Killer (1998) features martial arts legend Jet Li in top form. Li plays Fu, a novice hitman who may be too nice for his own good in the world of contract killing. Fu has been hired by a criminal named Lo (Eric Tsang) to seek the bounty on the “King of Killers,” a notoriously dangerous hitman who has recently murdered a Yakuza crime boss. With the entire underworld competing for the bounty, Fu will have his fighting skills put to the ultimate test. Jet Li is wonderful in this action comedy, providing his own style of lightning-quick action along with a good amount of humor.
Directed by Jim Jarmusch, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) stars Forest Whitaker as a hitman in modern times who lives his life by the code of bushido (the way of the samurai) as described in the Hagakure. Ghost Dog (Whitaker) is employed by the mobster, Louis (John Tormey), who saved his life years prior, but eventually Louis’s bosses want Ghost Dog terminated. What transpires is a profoundly odd yet entirely engaging plot with violence and contemplative moments. Ghost Dog feels a lot like an arthouse interpretation of a hitman movie, and as such it will appeal to those seeking something completely unique in the genre.
Oscar-winning actors Tom Hanks and Paul Newman star in director Sam Mendes’s tale of mob violence and familial loyalty set in Depression-plagued Illinois during the early 1930s. Hanks portrays Mike Sullivan, a mob enforcer who works alongside Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig), the violent and unpredictable son of elderly downstate Irish Mob bus John Rooney (Paul Newman). John Rooney respects Sullivan and treats him more like a son than he does his own son—that is, until Sullivan’s 12-year-old son witnesses Mike and Connor murder some people in a situation that was triggered by Connor’s recklessness. Suddenly, Sullivan becomes an enemy and target of the Mob and is forced to go on the lam to protect both himself and his son.
Set over the course of one action-packed night in Los Angeles, Collateral stars Jamie Foxx as Max Durocher, a cabdriver who’s been working the same monotonous shift for twelve years who dreams of one day owning his own limo service. At first he picks up Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett Smith), a Justice Department prosecutor who develops a fondness for Max during their ride. Max’s next fare is a man named Vincent (Tom Cruise) who offers Max six one-hundred-dollar bills and promises a seventh if Max allows him to reserve the cab for the rest of the night. Vincent says he will have five stops throughout the evening; after the first stop, Max realizes to his horror that Vincent is a coldblooded hitman. Roger Ebert says, “Collateral is essentially a long conversation between a killer and a man who fears for his life….This is a rare thriller that’s as much character study as sound and fury.”
John Smith (Brad Pitt) and his wife Jane (Angelina Jolie) have been married for five years but have sought counseling because the sexual spark has gone out of their union. For five years, they’ve also kept their professions secret from one another—they are both contract killers. They discover this when they are assigned by different contractors to kill Benjamin “The Tank” Danz and both bungle the job. Realizing it’s dangerous that their secret is out, their respective employers assign Mr. and Mrs. Smith to kill one another—and perversely, this cat-and-mouse game of potential spousal murder is all it takes to put the oomph back into their love life.
In Hitman (2007), a video game movie made as an espionage action thriller, Timothy Olyphant is Agent 47, a genetically engineered gun-for-hire who has been made into the perfect killing machine. Agent 47 works for a group known as “The Organization” and is assigned to kill Russian President Mikhail Belicoff (Ulrich Thomsen) in public. Agent 47 learns that there was a single witness to the assassination—Nika Boronina (Olga Kurylenko), a beautiful prostitute for whom the killer begins to develop strange and atypical feelings. Additionally, Agent 47 is being hunted by Interpol agent Mike Whittier (Dougray Scott). Hitman was directed by Xavier Gens who also directed the great French horror film Frontier(s) in the same year.
This violent thriller by the Coen Brothers won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Set in 1980, it tells the story of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a welder and hunter in rural Texas who accidentally stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug battle that left everyone dead but also left a suitcase filled with $2 million. Moss keeps the money for himself but is soon tracked by a terrifyingly sadistic killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who seems to only be one or two steps behind Moss at any given time. Roger Ebert writes of Chigurh, “He shadows him like his doom, never hurrying, always moving at the same measured pace, like a pursuer in a nightmare.” Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to put the kibosh on the unfolding carnage, but with little success.
Nicolas Cage is Joe, an expert hitman who’s had enough of the criminal lifestyle and travels to Thailand to pull off a series of four hits that will provide him enough money to retire comfortably. His usual MO is to hire a vagrant to run his errands, at which point he kills him. But he takes a liking to a Thai street boy named Kong, who learns that Joe is a hitman and seeks his tutelage. Training Kong in the art of contract murder is Joe’s first breach of the hitman code. The second is when he develops feelings for a pretty deaf-and-mute girl named Fon. But when the man who hired Joe to pull off the four contract killings in Thailand kidnaps Kong, Kong has no choice but to betray Joe.
Wesley Allan Gibson (James McAvoy) is a wage slave entrapped in a hellish routine of office drudgery and verbal abuse at the hands of his obese boss. Then he comes across a gorgeous and seductive woman named Fox (Angelina Jolie), who tells him that his father was a legendary assassin with such precise aim that he was able to shoot the wings off a fly. But Wesley’s father was killed by a hitman named Cross, who betrayed the Fraternity, the criminal organization that employed Wesley’s dad. Sloan (Morgan Freeman) is the current leader of the Fraternity and demands that Wesley joins their ranks.
In this thriller by director Luc Besson (who cowrote the screenplay), Zoe Saldana portrays Cataleya, a young woman from Colombia who at age nine witnessed a drug kingpin in Bogota murder her parents, after which she was taken in by her uncle in Chicago, a gangster named Emilio. Fifteen years after seeing her parents ruthlessly killed, Cataleya has developed into a hired assassin whose only goal is to avenge her parents’ deaths. After she has killed 22 men who were somehow involved in the killing of her mother and father, she attracts the attention of a Chicago police detective.
Saoirse Ronan stars in the title role as a blonde teenage girl in the snowy wilds of Finland. She has been raised by birth by her father, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), an ex-CIA agent who trains her into becoming a remorseless and efficient killing machine. When Hanna reaches the age of sixteen, Erik sends her to kill his old enemy, CIA agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), the killer of Hanna’s mother and who herself is hell-bent on killing Hanna. But after killing a doppelgänger of Marissa, Hanna learns that Erik is not her father and that she may be the result of a CIA experiment wherein children had their DNA altered to make them brutally dispassionate killers. Soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers.
Set in the fall of 2008, right after the stock-market crash and the election of Barack Obama, the title Killing Them Softly refers to mob enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who chooses to dispatch of his victims in the most humane ways possible. After three low-life grifters invade a Mafia card game and make away with the loot at gunpoint, Jackie is assigned to track them down and kill them. Along the way, Jackie hires another enforcer named Mickey (James Gandolfini) but soon regrets his decision. According to Reel Views, “The most unconventional aspect of Killing Them Softly is the banality with which it treats murder-for-hire. This is just another career opportunity for those who live on society’s underbelly.”
Set between the years 2044 and 2074, the title of this time-travel thriller refers to a hitman from the future who is able to travel to the past and dispose of his bodies while evading the high-tech surveillance state of the present. When the hitman has outlived his efficiency, he is sent back to the past to be killed and to “close the loop.” Bruce Willis portrays Joe, a man in 2074 who is sent back to the past to be killed by his younger version (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). When Young Joe hesitates upon being shocked to see himself from the future, Old Joe knocks him out and goes on the run, setting up a string of catastrophes.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a retired hitman who is still mourning the death of his beloved wife, who arranged to have a puppy sent to John prior to her passing. Apart from his custom 1969 Mustang, the dog is the only thing that John Wick loves anymore. But when some arrogant Russian mobsters pay Wick a visit to steal his car and kill his dog, his blind rage compels him to come out of retirement. Wick will not be satisfied until he dispatches the entire Russian mob family.
Two adopted siblings—Drew (Niko Nicotera) and June (Sam Quartin) fall in love with one another and concoct a scheme to kill their violent stepfather Larry (Mark Boone Junior). Larry is the kingpin of an obscure Oklahoma drugs-and-prostitution ring. When he learns that his estranged stepson Drew has returned to town seeking vengeance, he hires a quiet and cerebral hitman named Pope (Marilyn Manson) to kill Drew, but Pope has his own ideas about what will constitute justice. Filmmakers Corey Asraf and John Swab originally had trouble finding producers for their script, seeing as it was drenched in unsavory themes such as child abuse, rape, and incest. Regarding having shot the film in his home state of Oklahoma, Swab says, “It has this sort of untouched, forgotten aesthetic. I don’t think we would have been able to capture that in a city….We wanted to tell the story about the underbelly of Middle America and all of the locations that aren’t filmed.”
As is a theme with so many hitman films, Mechanic: Resurrection stars Jason Statham as Arthur Bishop, a retired assassin who is forced by circumstances to resume his criminal lifestyle. Living in Rio de Janeiro under a fake identity, Bishop had hoped to live peacefully and without detection. But when his archenemy threatens to expose him, Bishop has no choice but to perform three high-risk suicide missions before he can again go comfortably into hiding.
When Belarussian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) gets called before the International Criminal Court to be tried for genocide, the witnesses suddenly wind up dead. But when a notorious hitman named Darius Kincaid agrees to testify against Dukhovich, Interpol summons a professional bodyguard named Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) to protect him en route to the trial. Things quickly get complicated when it turns out that Kincaid, who has killed over 250 people as a hitman, has also made 28 unsuccessful attempts on Bryce’s life—meaning that Bryce is none too fond of Kincaid, either. The film is directed by Patrick Hughes who also directed the sequel, The Hitman’s Bodyguard’s Wife (2021), as well as The Expendables 3 (2014).
Other Hitman Movies
- The Killers (1946) Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien star in this noirish take on an Ernest Hemingway short story about a man who allows hitmen to kill him without resisting.
- Murder by Contract (1958) Released in Italy as Asesinato por Contrato, this film stars Vince Edwards as a down-and-out drifter who turns to contract killing to make money.
- Blast of Silence (1961) This low-budget noir is set in Manhattan at Christmastime and features a sleazy cocktail-jazz soundtrack. Directed, written, and starring Allen Baron as a remorseless contract killer.
- Violent City (1970) Charles Bronson plays a hitman who is double-crossed by his boss, so he follows him to New Orleans seeking vengeance.
- The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) Christopher Lee portrays the sociopathic hitman Francisco Scaramanga, who seeks to dispatch of British Agent 007, AKA James Bond (Roger Moore).
- Portrait of a Hitman (1979) Jack Palance is Jimbuck, a man who moonlights as a hitman under the tutelage of crime boss Max (Rod Steiger). When Jimbuck is assigned to kill his mentor Dr. Bob Michaels (Bo Svenson), Jimbuck is forced to reconsider the path he’s taken in life.
- Prizzi’s Honor (1985) Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner portray Charley Partanna and Irene Walker, Mafia contract killers by day and lovers at night in this screwball comedy. But when a mob boss’ daughter (Anjelica Huston) develops a romantic fondness for Charley, the mob tells Charley and Irene to kill each other.
- Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) This Woody Allen comedy stars Allen as a married filmmaker who is tempted to cheat on his wife. It also stars Martin Landau as an unfaithful ophthalmologist who considers taking a hit out on his wife after she discovers him cheating.
- Assassins (1995) Rath (Sylvester Stallone) is a hitman who needs to complete a few more contracts so he can retire, but Bain (Antonio Banderas) wants to prove he is the best hitman in the world by stealing Rath’s contracted kills and, eventually, killing Rath.
- Fulltime Killer (2001) Andy Lau stars as a flashy hitman who engages in an epic battle with a much more secretive and discreet hitman played by Takeshi Sorimachi. Fulltime Killer is fun and over-the-top, with memorable references to films like Point Break (1991).
- Crank (2006) Jason Statham stars as a hitman who is poisoned with a drug that will gradually slow his heart and kill him, so he goes on a wild rampage of reckless violence so he can keep his heart rate up until he can find a cure (and get revenge).
- Hitman: Agent 47 (2015) Paul Walker was originally attached to play Agent 47 in this second adaptation of the Hitman franchise of video games, but Rupert Friend was cast in the lead role after Walker’s death in a car accident.
- Deliver Us From Evil (2020) This South Korean thriller written and directed by Hong Won-Chan trails a hitman who travels to Thailand to investigate a kidnapping, only to find that he’s been marked for death as well.
- Flinch (2021) A young hitman (Daniel Zovatto) commits a murder that is accidentally witnessed by his girlfriend. He decides to have her move in with him rather than kill her but discovers she may not be all that she seems.
- The Hitman’s Bodyguard’s Wife (2021) Salma Hayek takes a larger role in this fun sequel that has her character Sonia Kincaid seek the aid of Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) to rescue her husband (Samuel L. Jackson).
- Nobody (2021) is a phenomenal hitman movie with incredible production and starring Bob Odenkirk.
- House of Gucci (2021) From director Ridley Scott, this thriller is based on the real-life drama and murder in the Gucci family. A murder-for-hire serves as the climax of the film.