- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
have to admit up-front that this is something of a pet movie – the kind you love all the more because not that many people have seen it. Why? Let’s start by saying it’s a superbly well-crafted, mid-‘80s blend of Brit gangster flick, suspense, heavy-duty irony, and Zen/existentialist philosophy. It’s also a remarkable agglomeration of talent on both sides of the camera, and stars three of the greatest leading men/character actors that England produced in the latter half of 20th century -- two at the peak of their powers and one at the very beginning of his long film and television career. It’s also notable as the film that established the feature film career of a personal favorite, Stephen Frears, the too-versatile-for-his-own-good director behind “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid,” “The Grifters,” “Dirty Pretty Things,” “High Fidelity,” “The Queen” and many others. But forget all that, what’s really striking about “The Hit” is its subject matter. This isn’t just another thriller about criminals threatened with death; it’s an entirely entertaining parable that’s actually about death and how we humans face our own end.
Written by Frears’ then-frequent TV collaborator, novelist Peter Prince, “The Hit” opens at the Old Bailey, circa the early ‘70s. Low-rent crook Willie Parker (Terrence Stamp) turns state’s evidence on several of his criminal pals, who respond by serenading him with the sentimental World War II-era anthem, “We’ll Meet Again.” The meaning is clear enough. Ten years later, Willie, now a suave 40-something bohemian with a picture of John Lennon over his bed, is hiding out in high style on Spain’s Costa del Sol. In the course of an afternoon bike ride he metaphorically meets his old mates again through the person of the extremely deadly Mr. Braddock (John Hurt) and Myron (Tim Roth, in his first theatrical film), a glorified soccer hooligan being given his big break in the murder biz.
Saying that the assignment calls for Willie to meet with the crime boss he betrayed, Braddock chooses not to execute his victim on the spot, but to take him on a proverbial ride through Spain’s countryside with France as the ultimate destination. Allowing himself to be in a “road picture” is Braddock’s first mistake. One problem he encounters along the way is Maggie (Laura del Sol), a beautiful young ex-street urchin with a terrifying will to live. The other is the intended victim, who, after some initial resistance, seems not to be all that put out by the near-certainty of his immanent murder. Is Willie Parker merely a blissed-out intellectual, or is the Zen-like calm some kind of outrageous gambit to save his own skin? Regardless, it throws Braddock and thuggish Myron seriously off their games.
“The Hit” was a box-office failure on its original release. Though the film had a first-rate cast of largely well-known actors, plenty of wit and suspense, a few brief but tense and extremely well-made action sequences, apt music by rock guitar deity Eric Clapton and Flamenco virtuoso Paco de Lucia, and lots of stunning photography of the Spanish countryside by director of photography Mike Molloy, it just wasn’t enough.
Terrence Stamp (“The Limey,” “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) had been something of a superstar in ‘60s Britain, but at this point audiences knew him, if they knew him at all, as General Zod (kneel before him). John Hurt was an established and highly regarded character actor, but still, to most he was the poor guy whose chest exploded in “Alien” or, to PBS fans, the seriously wacky and terrifying Emperor Caligula of “I, Claudius.” Venerable international star Fernando Rey, who has a non-speaking role as a dogged Spanish investigator, was probably just as well known as the rest of the cast for his part as the drug trafficking “Frog 1,” in “The French Connection” and “The French Connection II,” and was also something of an art house superstar for his deadpan roles in Luis Buñuel’s surreal ‘70s comedies. Tim Roth was mostly an unknown in the U.S., but he had made a splash in the U.K. as the star of the controversial telefilm, “Made in Britain.” Dancer-actress Laura del Sol was known to art house audiences world wide for playing the title role in Carlos Saura’s annoying, but successful, flamenco version of “Carmen.” The remaining cast member, Bill Hunter, who figures in a crucial cameo as an unfortunate Aussie gangster, was already a huge star down-under, but remains all but unknown in the U.S. despite significant roles in “Strictly Ballroom,” “Muriel’s Wedding” and “Finding Nemo.”
Obviously, none of that was enough to sell even “select” audiences on the idea of a character-driven philosophical thriller dealing with the inevitability of the grim reaper. In theory, “My Dinner with Andre”-lite, on the road, in Spain, with bullets, should have been a more saleable premise than simply “My Dinner with Andre” – but it wasn’t. “The Hit” is a probable influence on “Sexy Beast” and apparently “In Bruges” (which I need to catch up on), but it seems that, then as now, audiences prefer their character-driven gangster suspense without a side of non-comedic philosophy.
Which is not to say that “The Hit” is anyone’s idea of an impenetrable art film or just three guys and a girl sitting around talking or not talking. It is a tightly constructed tale that hinges on a rather astonishing four-way character dynamic in which two mature criminals, both ruthless in their way, face off as two youngsters (one a brutally survival-minded innocent, and the other an upbeat criminal sociopath with a soft spot for hot chicks) consistently gum up the works.
While Hurt, who ultimately owns the film, barely talks, and beautiful Laura del Sol’s character appears to speak no English, Stamp and the 22 year-old Roth, a bit of a scene stealer in his first theatrical feature, do enough talking for all four, but all the characters more than hold their own. The balance between all four key cast members is maintained brilliantly by Frears, who shows the flair for working with extremely strong casts that would serve him so well a few years later on such all-star productions as “Dangerous Liaisons.” Just as important, the action sequences, while brief, deliberately offhand, and discretely unpretty, are brutally effective. While Frears’ makes a costar of the Spanish countryside, it adds both tension and poetry to the proceedings, and never gets in the way.
In fact, everything in the film adds up. Even if Willie doesn’t seem to mind dying, we start to find ourselves very much concerned with his fate as well as that of the innocent girl who’s been dragged into this deadly situation, while we’re also extremely curious just what’s going on with the supposedly inhuman Mr. Braddock. And, while Myron may be a fool and a brute, in the hands of the charismatic young Tim Roth, he’s kind of hard not to like a little, particularly as he discovers a bit of inner gallantry when he tries to protect the gorgeous Maggie. (Of course, he won’t be able to have sex with her if she’s dead, so there’s that. But what he doesn’t seem to realize is he likely won’t be able to have sex with her even if they’re both alive; the older and unpretty but Jean-Paul Belmondo-esque Braddock may actually be much more her type.)
Now, a word about that four-and-a-half-star rating. When I first saw “The Hit,” I was as young as Tim Roth was, and in the midst of an intense fascination with eastern philosophy via the writings of Anglo-American guru/entertainer Alan Watts. So, the film hit me perhaps a bit harder than any merely well done, brainy kind of a thriller probably should. Today, I just can’t bring myself to give this film a mere four stars. Even if I’m overrating “The Hit” just a little, at the very least, this remarkable collaboration between a great director, a strong screenplay, and six perfectly cast actors stands as the kind of film that’s guaranteed to start an interesting post-flick discussion. It’s one thing to make death entertaining – just about any good filmmaker can do that. It’s another thing to make the idea of death entertaining and, in the context of what is really a very dark thriller, somewhat uplifting as well.
Criterion Collection DVD Review:
As usual, this Criterion DVD offers a terrific restoration of the original film that looks exactly as if it were shot yesterday, although the soundtrack, with that rather remarkable rock/electronic/flamenco score remains in (very crisp) monophonic sound. There are just two extras, but they are substantial. The first is a brand-new commentary featuring John Hurt, Tim Roth, director Stephen Frears, writer Peter Prince, and editor Mick Audsley, and it’s about as interesting as you might expect. There is also a 1988 edition of the English chat show, “Parkinson,” featuring Terrence Stamp. While barely touching on “The Hit,” the show goes a long way towards revealing exactly why he was the perfect guy to play the intermittently enlightened Willie Parker.