Hit men movies

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jul 3 12:16:26 MDT 2003

I had selected Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 "Le Samouraï" and Johnnie To 
and Wai Ka-fai's 2001 "Fulltime Killer" pretty much at random from the 
local video store. But comparisons between these two 'noirs' involving 
hit men and the cops who pursue them began to suggest themselves 
immediately. Especially after 'fulltime killer' Tok (Andy Lau), whose 
main interest outside of killing people on contract is movies, berates a 
thug for never having seen "Le Samouraï".

Melville's Parisian hit man is improbably named Jef Costello. Played by 
Alain Delon, this character has the same laconic charisma as the just as 
improbably named master burglar Corey he played in Melville's 1970 "Le 
Cercle Rouge", a film I reviewed a while back 
(http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/Le_Cercle_Rouge.htm). With 
their American names and their wardrobe lifted from a Bogart film, these 
quintessentially Melvillian characters live outside of society and 
eschew intimacy of any sort, except camaraderie with fellow outlaws.

"Le Samouraï" begins with bogus quote from the East: "There's no greater 
solitude that the Samurai's, unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in 
the jungle." Written by Melville himself, but attributed to the Japanese 
"Book of Bushido", this is the same gimmick that he used in "Le Cercle 
Rouge." The film opens with a saying attributed to the Buddha, but 
written by Melville himself, that men who are destined to meet will 
eventually meet in the red circle of fate, no matter what.

Of course, the affinity between bowdlerized Japanese culture and 
American b-movies is more than skin-deep. When Kurosawa's "The Seven 
Samurai" inspired the western "Magnificent Seven", one might be led to 
take into account the influence of classic western films on Kurosawa 
himself early on in his career. Such is the nature of the film 'lingua 
franca' that fertilized and cross-fertilized the work of so many 
directors and screenwriters in the post-WWII period.

Jef Costello is bound by a strict ethical code, despite the fact that he 
is violating one of the most sacrosanct Ten Commandments on an ongoing 
basis. Unlike real life hit men such as Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, this 
killer commands respect and admiration--even if his life seems barren 
and unrewarding in most respects. Living in a dingy studio apartment and 
enjoying no companionship except that of a pet bird, he seems to live 
only for his next assignment. When he is betrayed by the men who hired 
him to kill a nightclub owner, he risks everything--including capture by 
the police who are following his every move--to pay them back.

"Fulltime Killer" pits the Chinese assassin Tok against his Japanese 
rival O (Takashi Sorimachi). Since Tok came close to winning a gold 
medal in the Olympics target shooting competitions, he is eminently 
qualified to kill his quarry, especially at long range. The only thing 
that stands in his way to becoming Number One is the reclusive and 
withdrawn O, who makes Jef Costello look like a social butterfly.

Ostensibly living in modest bachelor digs, O actually occupies a loft 
across the street which is stocked with the latest weaponry and 
telephoto lenses. From the window of the loft, he voyeuristically gazes 
at his housekeeper Chin (Kelly Lin) who suspects that her employer might 
be a hit man. Whenever he lives town, she notices that there is a 
contract hit carried out in the city he has just visited.

By contrast, Tok is outgoing and affectionate in an almost manic 
fashion. When he runs into Chin, who works at a video store when not 
looking after O's apartment, he is clad in a rubber Bill Clinton mask 
like that used--as he puts it--in that film where the robbers all wore 
such masks. (Point Blank). He later puts the mask to good use when he 
kills a gangster and his henchmen in broad daylight not ten blocks from 
where he has been having a pleasant lunch with Chin. He blandly assures 
her that after he has killed a few bad men, he would rejoin her in no 
more than fifteen minutes. He keeps his word.

The final confrontation between Tok and O takes place in a fireworks 
factory and incorporates all of the elaborate gunplay-choreography of a 
classic John Woo film.

Despite attempts by Martin Scorsese and others to strip the romantic 
aura from the professional hit man in films such as "Goodfellas", this 
genre continues to have enormous appeal. Such films are the 
quintessential escape. The heroes not only live outside of bourgeois 
society, they seem to care little about its rules. With their thin 
veneer of existentialism and their highly stylized presentation, there 
is a commonality between Melville's work, a whole school of Hong Kong 
film analyzed by Michael Hoover and Lisa Stokes in "City on Fire" and 
derivative works by Quentin Tarentino and his imitators.

They seem to flourish when the class struggle is in ebb--the late 1940s 
were a good time for Hollywood 'noir' classics just as the 1990s gave 
rise to John Woo and other Hong Kong masters who reworked the Hollywood 
genre to reflect a troubled and seemingly hopeless transition period in 
the British colony. In an interview with John Woo in the Bright Lights 
Film Journal (http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/31/hk_johnwoo.html), he 
parries the interviewer's question about his apparent love for violence:

"As a child, I was raised in the slums of Hong Kong. I saw too many 
people killed in disasters and by gangs. Growing up in the slums is like 
growing up in hell. In the ’50s and ’60s, there were riots, and I 
witnessed people killed by police right outside my own door. I also was 
very active during the Vietnam War. On the one hand, I so admire those 
men who went away to fight for their country. But also I was very 
against war, killing, and fighting... in any respect. I always dreamed 
of a better world. Another place where there is no violence and only 
peace and love exist. I have seen enough violence. In actual life, I 
hate violence! But the world is not like I dreamed; there is violence 
and crime everywhere. My ideal is that there is always some sort of 

Perhaps with a rise in the class struggle, directors with such feelings 
will be able to express themselves in a more hopeful fashion.


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