Hitman in films and novels from Kill Bill to Fargo
Michael Hendricks of The Killing Kind is not your typical hitman. For one, he only hits other hitmen. For two, he doesn’t do it for the thrill or the money (although he does charge—for ten times the price on your head, he’ll make the hitman sent to kill you go bye-bye). He does it because he considers ridding the world of hired killers atonement for the innocents his black ops unit killed in Afghanistan. (The irony of his vocation is not lost on him.)
To celebrate The Killing Kind’s release, I thought it would be fun to round up my favorite offbeat hitmen from pop culture. I was aiming for a Top Five, but I wound up with eight. We’ll pretend that was on purpose, in keeping with the offbeat theme.
Hit Man, et al.
When we first meet Lawrence Block’s Keller, he’s “your basic New York single guy, living alone, eating out or bringing home takeout, schlepping his wash to the Laundromat, doing the Times crossword with his morning coffee…Except that every once in a while he got a phone call from a man in White Plains. And packed a bag and caught a plane and killed somebody.” Oh, and he also collects pre-1940, non-US-issue stamps. It’s almost hard to believe the guy has trouble getting dates.
Quentin Tarantino’s career is littered with offbeat hitmen, but Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill leaves the rest of them in the dust. She’s a statuesque, blond kung fu master with a penchant for flashy jumpsuits. A former member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad who walked away from her life as a hired killer when she discovered she was pregnant, her real name is Beatrix Kiddo. How much more offbeat can you get?
Ken and Ray
I confess, if it weren’t for Netflix, I probably would have never watched In Bruges.
What little I knew of it made it look like a mildly diverting genre exercise at best. But it happened to be available for streaming, so my wife and I gave it a shot—and it proved to be a gem. In Bruges is the story of two hitmen banished to the titular Belgian city after a job gone wrong. Brendan Gleeson’s Ken is delighted by Bruges’s quaint charm, which is lost on his surly young partner, Ray (played by Colin Farrell). Their relationship is hilarious and oddly moving. To say more would spoil the fun for those who haven’t seen the flick.
Keanu Reeves’s John Wick is a man of few words… and many, many bullets. This movie, like In Bruges, was a huge surprise to me. It looked like a generic actioner when it came out, but good word-of-mouth encouraged me to watch it, and I’m glad I did. A sleek, stylish revenge tale featuring a main character of almost preternatural competence, it felt to me like the Parker adaptation I’ve always wanted. A word of warning, though: the inciting incident for Wick’s revenge spree might be tough for some to watch.
Shovel Ready, et al.
Adam Sternbergh’s Spademan used to be a garbage man. Then a dirty bomb hit Times Square, killing his wife and turning New York City into an apocalyptic wasteland. Now he scrapes by killing people for money. “I kill men,” he says. “I kill women because I don’t discriminate. I don’t kill children because that’s a different kind of psycho.” A guy like that doesn’t sound like someone whose head you’d want to spend time in, but in Sternbergh’s hands, Spademan proves a damn compelling narrator.
Gaear Grimsrud and Lorne Malvo
Fargo (the film and television show, respectively)
The Coen brothers’ Fargo was such a singular accomplishment, I was shocked to hear FX was adapting it for the small screen—and even more shocked when the adaptation proved terrific. Using the movie more as inspiration than template, the series complements its source material in interesting ways. Peter Stormare’s Gaear Grimsrud and Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo couldn’t seem more different on the surface. The former spoke maybe eighty words in the whole movie—all of them unhinged—and fed a guy into a wood chipper. The latter comes off genteel and mellifluous and manages to pass for a year as a bland Midwestern dentist. But don’t be fooled; they’re flipsides of the same coin—literal embodiments of chaos, like the trickster gods of myth.
Chris Holm is an award-winning short-story writer whose work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and The Best American Mystery Stories 2011. His critically acclaimed Collector trilogy made over forty Year’s Best lists. His latest novel, The Killing Kind, is about a man who makes his living hitting hitmen, only to wind up a target himself. For links to Chris on Twitter and Facebook, visit www.chrisholmbooks.com.