I've been pulling up some old DVD and Video Risk reviews from the cybertomb that once was EInsiders.com. Hope you enjoy. This review was from February 2001.
I have always been fascinated by criminals. In the seventh grade I got in trouble for reading "In Cold Blood" at school. Like all kids, you tell them not to do something and they take it as a dare to continue. I really believe one of the reasons I became a criminal defense attorney was my childhood fascination with John Dillinger and his dark brethren. Some of my favorite movies have dealt with the lone wolf killer who pits his intellect and physical prowess against society. What follows is a trip through several of those films which tower above imitators in their meticulous detail and character development. "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), "The Mechanic" (1972), "The Day of the Jackal" (1973), and "The Killer" (1989) are four killer videos. Let me try to convince you.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
One years before President Kennedy met his fate in Dallas, John Frankenheimer's adaptation of Richard Condon's taut thriller "The Manchurian Candidate" (screenplay by George Axelrod) hit the big screen. Pulled from circulation for many years following the assassination, this dark masterpiece has been restored and re-released for a new audience.
The film opens in a Korean brothel during the Korean war. A platoon of American GIS are enjoying a little R and R, all that is except the snobbish bore Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). Shaw is reminiscent of Major Winchester from the TV version of MASH, without any of Winchester's charm or wit. Shaw is a gruff, intellectual snob who does not hide his disdain for the other soldiers. The platoon is led by Captain Marco (Frank Sinatra). The evening's activities are broken up when Marco leads the team on a nighttime reconnaissance mission. The Platoon is led into a trap by a Korean scout, Chunjin (Henry Silva.) The platoon is overcome and whisked away to China.
Cut to the United States some months later. Shaw is revealed to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism that night. All members of the platoon now remember Shaw as the warmest, nicest person they have ever met; Shaw had been their best friend in the War. However these same men are haunted by nightmares which they can't seem to remember during waking hours. Captain and now Major Marco is attached to the Pentagon. Marco suffers night sweats and screams out as phantasmic images of horror crowd his sleep. Shaw's mother (Angela Lansbury) and Joe McCarthy-like step father, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) intend to use Raymond's notoriety to push the fascist Iselin into the presidency.
Thus begins one of the greatest political thrillers of all time. Why is this movie included in a review of Hit Man movies you may ask? While "The Manchurian Candidate" is first and foremost a political thriller, I include it because of the psychological make-up of Raymond Shaw. Shaw, it turns out has been brainwashed by the communists to be a sleeper agent. At some point in time, Shaw will be contacted by his control agent and perform murder for the benefit of those who brainwashed him. I won't spoil any more of the plot for those who have not seen this classic.
The character of Shaw, foreshadows many of the disturbed serial killers that prey on society. Shaw has an overbearing mother who dominates him and his ineffectual step father. Shaw hates them both. Shaw has no interpersonal skills. He is a failure with women. He tries to break free from his mother's influence, and start a relationship with the daughter of a rival of his stepfather. John McGiver plays Senator Thomas Jordon. His daughter Josie is portrayed by Leslie Parrish. Raymond is drawn to the Jordons because they hate Senator Iselin as much as he does. Raymond's hatred of his parents almost redeems him as he begins to show character and humility as he opposes them. Of course, this happiness is doomed from the start.
Rent this movie. This is one of the greatest American movies ever produced. Frankenheimer's direction is superb. The acting is also excellent. There is not one flawed performance among the large cast.
THE MECHANIC (1963)
There were three reigning tough guys in Hollywood during the 1970s: Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds and Charles Bronson. Of the three, Bronson appeared in the most diverse group of films. While Eastwood and Reynolds (with a few exceptions) always played the same character dressed differently, Bronson was a true actor. In "The Mechanic," Bronson plays Arthur Bishop, an aging independent hitman of the first caliber. Bishop is a lone wolf who seems to have no emotion. He doesn't hesitate when it comes time to pull the trigger. Bishop is a meticulous planner. One of the film's strong points are the meticulous scenes in which Bishop plans his work. As was the case in Walter Hill's "The Driver," director Michael Winner takes his time showing the small details of Bishop's work. The viewer is given an inside look at the hidden dark world of this killer.
The plot concerns Bishop taking in and training the son of one of his Mafia victims as his protégé. Steve McKenna (Jan-Michael
The remainder of the film deals with McKenna's training. Several complicated hits are showcased. The movie contains one of the best twist endings I've ever seen.
UPDATE: The remake with Jason Statham is pretty good until the end. The remake trades a "happy ending" for the original brutal twist ending.
THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (1972)
Based on Fredrick Forsyth's novel of the same name, Fred Zinnemann's "Day of the Jackal" is a taut tense assassination thriller. Based on factual events, the film traces the hunt for an English hitman known only as the Jackal (Edward Fox.) The Jackal has been hired to kill French president Charles De Gaulle by members of the French OAS. The OAS believed that De Gaulle had betrayed the men who died fighting in Algiers by giving that country independence in 1962. After the OAS fails to do the job themselves, they bring in a professional.
This movie is deliberately paced. The direction is lean and mean. The script by Kenneth Ross is excellent. There is so much going on in every scene. This movie gets better with every viewing. At the center of the masterpiece is the rock solid performance by Edward Fox. This is without a doubt his best work ever. The viewer never doubts that he IS the Jackal. The Jackal is the Lon Chaney Sr. of hitmen, he is a master of disguise. He uses his environment, whatever and wherever it is to blend in and hide. Whether he is living off a wealthy, neglected French woman (Delpine Seyrig as Colette), or sharing a flat with a gay Dutchman he met in a bathhouse, there is nothing the Jackal won't do to complete his job. The Jackal also is devoid of any sympathy or mercy. If someone needs to die to insure his success, they will die.
Though he too is a lone wolf, the Jackal relies on other underworld figures to succeed. Cyril Cusack is a standout as the gunsmith who designs and builds the Jackal's special rifle. One standout scene takes place as the Jackal takes his new rifle out in the woods and zero's his scope. He hangs a watermelon with a face drawn on it from a branch and fires. Once the scope is zeroed, he places and explosive tipped bullet in the chamber. The melon explodes as will De Gaulle's head once the Jackal gets him in his sights.
The other standout performance is that of Michael Lonsdale as the persistent Inspector Lebel. Lonsdale uses the law enforcement resources of the Surete and Interpol to track down and stop the Jackal. Zinnemann spends as much time detailing the efforts of law enforcement as he does those of the Jackal. This movie is a brilliant chess match played between good and evil. Students of history will know how the story ends, but that fact in no way detracts from the suspense which permeates this great film.
Word of warning. Please don't waste your time with the horrible remake "The Jackal" starring Bruce Willis, Richard Gere and Sidney Poitier. Also, if you saw that piece of bilious cinema, please don't let it dissuade you from seeing the original.
THE KILLER (1989)
Of the four movies I've reviewed here, "The Killer" is my personal favorite. I'll tell you why. I am a sap for sentimental movies. I like chick flicks. I liked the interplay between Bruce Willis and Reginald Vel Johnson in "Die Hard." I like sap. Those who have seen John Woo's exciting brutal thriller may be confused by this statement, but what set "The Killer" apart for me was the tender side of Jeffery Chow (Chow Yun-Fat). Chow kills more people in this movie than I can count, however, when an innocent person is caught in the crossfire and hurt, Chow risks life and limb to save them. This one character trait adds a mystical spiritual tone to the film which makes "The Killer" so much more than a well choreographed shoot em up.
That aside, the action in this film is outstanding. American producers have yet to give Mr. Woo the freedom to reveal his artistry in a big budget movie. If you want to see magic, rent his Hong Kong films.
Jeffery Chow is a high priced hit man who never fails to get his man. He is a ruthless killing machine when on the job. During a blazing shoot ut in a night club, Jeffery accidentally blinds the lounge singer, Jennie (Salley Yeh). Haunted by the young woman's screams and fate, Chow becomes her protecting angel. He hovers from a distance until one day, Jennie is attacked by some street hoods. Chow comes to the rescue and enters Jennie's life. To atone for his sin, Chow seeks to obtain a corneal transplant for the young woman. He accepts one last contract for one million dollars in order to save Jennie's sight and retire to marital bliss.
During an exciting scene which foreshadows the ending of "Face Off," Chow assassinates a major drug dealer. Inspector Li (Danny Lee) hops into a speed boat and takes off after Chow. During a spectacular which pits Chow against Li and some double crossing gangster, another innocent bystander is shot. Chow scoops up the wounded child and rushes her to a hospital. Here Chow and Li meet face to face in the first of numerous Mexican standoffs. The two men realize they are both two sides of the same coin. Each realizes that they have more in common than not. This is a disturbing realization for both men.
Woo's examination of this duality is another magical element of this film. Li the Buddhist examines his actions and the conflicting respect he feels for Chow. Chow seems to be leaning toward Christianity as he tries to come to terms with the dark and light sides of his nature. The film is rife with religious symbolism which may be nothing more than an artistic choice on Woo's part. However, the words and actions of the two male leads gives credence that their spiritual dilemmas are real and intended.
Symbolism and sappiness aside, if you rent this film for pure evisceral excitement you will not be disappointed. There is no one Hollywood film which comes close to "The Killer" for pure adrenaline driven action. The shootouts are mind blowing. One could suffocate watching "The Killer" as you are so caught up in the action that you forget to breath. Like "The Mechanic," "The Killer" has a disturbing twist ending. Rent this, or else.