The Hit is crime tragedy in the strictest Shakespearean sense. Meaning, almost everyone dies at the end. The funeral march early in the film sort of hints at this. And in between, it's a glorious, gutsy movie.
Stephen Frears directs from Peter Prince's dynamite screenplay. Terence Stamp plays Willie Parker, a British gangster turned government snitch, hiding out in the Spanish countryside for the last ten years. With his old boss out of jail, Parker is nabbed by a hitman and his sidekick - Braddock (John Hurt) and Myron (Tim Roth), respectively - who are tasked with driving Parker cross country and into France, where he will face his mob fate.
On the way, Parker exhibits an indifferent, cheery demeanor, welcoming the ride. Myron is the newbie, who talks too much and is quick to boil his own blood. Braddock is the veteran assassin - few words and even fewer expressions. They're shifting to evade the police since the Spanish hooligans they hired to find Parker ran down a cop. Braddock decides to lay low at a mob safe-house in Madrid, only to find an old Australian associate, Harry (Bill Hunter), already living there with his Spanish girlfriend, Maggie (Laura Del Sol). Braddock and Harry share some vague history together, working for the same outfit, and Harry's jitters when Braddock shows up mean to tell us that Braddock is all business - cold and merciless. Parker blows the lid on his identity to Harry, knowing that his companions can't leave that information shelved seeing that there's a bounty on their heads. Braddock strikes a deal with Harry to take Maggie with him as insurance for not spilling to the police to collect the reward. Reminded by Myron that maybe love doesn't conquer all, Braddock re-visits the idea and goes back into the house to take care of Harry.
When the leads are Stamp, Hurt and Roth, the director can take a deep breath and relax, trusting the excellence of these performers, who know their craft so well. And that's exactly what Frears does here. Sure, the script is fantastic and good material is hard to mess up. But, it's even harder to elevate and not surprisingly, The Hit goes from a potentially forgotten mid-'80s crime flick to supreme film-making art.
The camera movement is delicious. It's up and down, side to side, over and above, but never gratuitous or headache-inducing. The jib crane captures sun-baked rural Spain and its winding roads. The dollies follow our men out of one room and into another. From cars to street, to the woods and back again. And when we need to stick steady with an image, Frears does just that. Watch how we don't move away from Maggie biting down into Braddock's hand, hearing her teeth digging into the skin, and seeing the blood pool and stain her lips and teeth. The scenes of the cops always a step behind at the crime scenes are static, as if being watched by a street corner observer. No dialogue, no action. The story isn't the chase. The story is about power struggle and survival.
As the film opens, we get the feeling that Parker is the central character. He's the one we should care about and his story is the one driving the picture. But, that's too easy. The movie is as much about Myron and Braddock and Maggie as it is about Parker. And it's not Parker's story to tell. He's just the device to get the ball rolling on the road trip at the heart of the film. Parker is the dead man walking. Myron and Braddock his death ushers. Maggie is their foil.
Maggie is also the window into Braddock's story. He's the most fascinating character, played like a thespian Zeus by Hurt. He's stringy and elastic. His cheeks and lips sickly saturated with dust and determination. Until Maggie is introduced, Braddock appears to be nothing more than the cliched silent thug. That's because he hasn't been challenged. Harry cowers and Myron is no match. Parker is the showy and sneaky opportunist, claiming to surrender to redemptive gangster ethics for being a stooge. Maggie is Braddock's true rival. She's simultaneously scared and stodgy. She doesn't say much except for tear-carried screams. But her eyes reveal something else. Not exactly sinister, but more mischievously malevolent. Biting Braddock's hand and crunching his privates are only the physical manifestations. She doesn't care about his aliases and past doings. She doesn't flinch when he calls out her lack of understanding English. And Braddock's responses are telling. He's almost delighted and impressed as he stares and suffers the pain of her bite. And despite sticking a gun in her crotch, her face and to the back of her head, he can't find it in him to pull the trigger. Myron's interruptions are trivial. Braddock isn't a man to take orders from his sidekick. Maybe he admires the fact that Maggie is the weakest of the bunch - the lone female without access or wherewithal to use a weapon - but she gives him the most grief. She hurts him, she entices him.
Braddock's get-up reminds me of Warren Oates as Bennie in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). White linen suit and big sunglasses. Unlike Bennie, however, Braddock's violence is dispatched without the randomness of Peckinpah's film. Braddock is targeted in every moment. Even pulling punches for an attractive woman, who causes his demise. Maggie is death catching up.