12 Killer Hit Man Movies

Just because a movie centers around a person who murders for money does not mean it can’t be a fun rom-com, too.
Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx star in 'Collateral' (2004).
Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx star in 'Collateral' (2004). / Dreamworks Productions

Though certain tropes are common within the hit man movie genre, the best of these films expand beyond the simple idea of murder-for-hire stories. At their heart, these merchants of death are bound by a code, by loyalty, and/or a love of the game. Some are tortured by mistakes, some are possessed by the pursuit of vengeance, while others seek absolution, an exit, or simply something worth living or dying for.

With Richard Linklater’s Hit Man (starring Glen Powell) now streaming on Netflix and giving us yet another interesting profile in contract killing, we’re taking a look back at a dozen distinct movies about hitmen and assassins. From existentialist rom-coms to stone-cold thrillers, revenge fantasies, action epics, and franchise favorites, these films have something for everyone.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Though there are several iconic films on this list, nothing matches the enduring relevance of Pulp Fiction, a pastiche of writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s ‘60s and ‘70s inspirations so successful that it spawned its own sub-genre filled with imitators. The film also helped add rocket fuel to the indie-coded revolution of the ‘90s.

Even aside from its influence and influences, it’s a tremendous film that tells a non-linear story about a mobster, his wife, two hitmen, a boxer looking for a way out, a pair of coffee shop robbers, and how their lives intersect. Surprising and endlessly quotable (you definitely know someone who can do the Christopher Walken watch scene verbatim), this LA saga could have looked a lot different had Tarantino decided to move forward with a different cast

While countless names have been attached over the years to the film (with varying degrees of credibility), we can’t stop thinking about two in particular: Julia-Louis Dreyfus and Matt Dillon.

The Seinfeld star was reportedly unable to play Mia, the role that would eventually go to Uma Thurman, and the Drugstore Cowboy actor was close to playing the Bruce Willis role of Butch the boxer (Tarantino wrote it with Dillon in mind). In both cases, it’s clear fate delivered the best possible outcome. Willis (who initially lobbied Tarantino to play either Vincent or Jules) is nine years older than Dillon and was exactly right to play the cooked fighter. And with all due respect to Dreyfus, we’ve seen her dance moves on Seinfeld and don’t know that she would have been a fit opposite John Travolta in the dance contest. 

Leon: The Professional (1994)

An assassin’s quiet and disciplined life of gun polishing, milk guzzling, and Gene Kelly movie-watching gets upended when he inserts himself into the middle of a massacre to save the life of his 12-year-old neighbor, Mathilda, in The Professional. Complications ensue as he (Jean Reno) begrudgingly agrees to show her (Natalie Portman) how to be a “cleaner,” fueling her quest for revenge against the man who killed her family and her attraction to her much older savior. Both actors deliver absolutely riveting performances. 

Gary Oldman also stands out as the crooked DEA agent in their crosshairs. A shiny and shouty mess, Oldman and writer/director Luc Besson found the character’s chaotic brilliance throughout filming, with the actor improvising some key scenes. In 2014, Oldman told Playboy that he was just trying to make Besson laugh when he screams for one of his flunkies to bring him “E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E” in the middle of the film’s epic final standoff.

Despite the great cast and brutal beauty of the film’s action sequences, Besson lingers, uncomfortably, in moments meant to portray the persistence of Mathilda’s crush, creating a legacy for the movie that Portman told The Hollywood Reporter was “complicated” for her (the film marked her feature debut).

As Portman detailed in Starting Young, a 10th-anniversary DVD featurette, it could have been even more off-putting had her parents not spoken up about needed script changes. 

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Grosse Pointe Blank is a hit man comedy deeply rooted in existential angst tied to star, producer, and co-writer John Cusack’s character going to his 10-year high school reunion and returning to the hometown—and the girlfriend (Minnie Driver)—he abandoned. If you want to talk commitment, Cusack said he actually endured the “special torture” of attending his own high school reunion for research purposes. 

In that same interview, Cusack said that the film aims to satirize the way people disassociate themselves from the vicious or immoral things they sometimes feel they have to do at work. And it is that, but it’s probably best remembered as a wildly clever rom-com with an edge, an all-time great soundtrack, and a desire to explore questions about getting older and taking stock of your life as you head into your thirties. As Driver’s Debbie says, though, it may be best to “leave your livestock alone.” 

Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai (1999)

Rules are important in most assassin movies. Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog takes it a step further, though, telling the story of a hitman (Forest Whitaker) known and respected in the streets who operates according to the code of the samurai while focusing specifically on loyalty to his master. 

Ghost Dog is a deeply unique foray into a more mainstream genre (like with his zombie film The Dead Don’t Die and the western Dead Man). Jarmusch himself described the film as a “gangster samurai hip-hop Eastern western” while speaking with Filmmaker Magazine. The indie maverick’s inspirations are similarly diverse; he cited everything from books like Don Quixote to Frankenstein and films including Le Samouraï and Point Blank in the same interview. 

Ghost Dog is another entry on this list with a noteworthy soundtrack, this one composed by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, who has gone on to score the next film on this list (Kill Bill) among others. 

Kill Bill (2003)

Tarantino’s second entry on this list (we’re combining Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2 here) is a straight-line tale of revenge. Uma Thurman’s The Bride is a hired gun who gets brutally dispatched at her own wedding before hunting down everyone responsible years after waking from a coma. 

From ripping out eyeballs to taking on the Crazy 88s and delivering The Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, Thurman’s character might be the most deadly badass on this list. The idea for Kill Bill reportedly came to life while Tarantino and Thurman were shooting Pulp Fiction, though it took a decade to realize the pair of films.

That gap between releases turned out to be a blessing; Tarantino told IGN that the time gave him an opportunity to reacquaint himself with Thurman, collaborating with her and seeing her around her daughter, Maya, which helped to introduce new layers her character.

Collateral (2004) 

Michael Mann’s intense thriller is the quintessential one-night-in-LA film, pitting icy hit-man Vincent (Tom Cruise) against Max (Jamie Foxx), a cab driver who’s been drafted into his service for a night’s worth of witness whacking. The film was originally set to take place in New York before Mann got involved.

Another detail: according to the DVD commentary (as disseminated by Film School Rejects), Cruise and Mann constructed an extremely detailed origin story for Vincent. “We postulated an alcoholic, abusive father who was culturally very progressive,” Mann said. “He was probably part of Ed Sadlowski’s Steelworkers Local, he was a Vietnam veteran, he had friends who were African-American on the South side of Chicago ... The father was probably an aficionado of jazz.”

Mr. And Mrs. Smith (2005)

Two assassins working for competing agencies accidentally fall into lust and then love and then complacency before realizing what the other does for a living. Naturally, this causes a bit of a rift and so they set out to end their union, definitively, by going all Spy vs. Spy on each other, destroying everything in their path, including each other, before rekindling their spark. 

Doug Liman’s action-rom-com benefits from the easy heat between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, two very talented actors who weren’t entirely acting, much to the delight of tabloids and the detriment of his marriage.

While Pitt and Jolie’s real-life relationship eventually came crashing down, we’ll always have this film (and the underrated and intense drama By The Sea) to remember happier times. But what if Jolie hadn’t even been Pitt’s co-star? Nicole Kidman was reportedly slated to lead at one point before bowing out due to scheduling conflicts or due to a lack of chemistry with Pitt, depending on which report you believe. Either way, Keith Urban should probably thank his lucky stars.

Red Eye (2005)

Wes Craven’s mid-air thriller about an assassin (Cillian Murphy) who charms a hotel manager (Rachel McAdams) on a flight before revealing his plan to use her to kill a government official is a taut, pulse-pounding film. With an absurdly short runtime of 85 minutes, you could watch Red Eye twice—with a quick intermission—in the time it takes to view Oppenheimer just once.

While Red Eye was a box office success and boasts an 80 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, Murphy isn’t exactly its biggest fan. “I don’t think it’s a good movie,” the Oscar winner told GQ in early 2024—though he did qualify that statement: “It’s a good B movie.” 

Murphy also had some nice things to say about working with McAdams and valued the ability to explore a character that quickly switched from light to dark. It’s just not a film he’s going to throw on during his next flight. 

In Bruges (2008)

Purgatory is a tour of the culture and fun (and so many old buildings) that Bruges, Belgium, has to offer as Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell cool off while waiting to find out the consequences of a sloppy hit from their sweary boss (Ralph Fiennes).

The consequences of a hit man’s kills are not typically explored within the genre. But while In Bruges isn’t exclusively a heavy dive into the guilt of an assignment gone bad, Martin McDonagh’s debut film does mix guilt with some deep dark comedy powered by Gleeson and Farrell’s cranky chemistry and the late arrival of Fiennes’s character.

While the cast is incredibly stacked (there‘s even a cameo by Ciarán Hinds), there was actually one star who didn’t make the cut: Matt Smith. Playing a younger version of Fiennes’ Harry, Smith matches the swagger and voice of the character while rocking an impressive mane and a sword that he uses to lop off someone’s head, as you can see here. (One year later, Smith replaced David Tennant as the star of Doctor Who.)

Looper (2012)

Writer/director Rian Johnson leaves the typical realm of assassin stories to create an intricate time travel tale about hitmen who kill and dispose of people that the mob has sent back 30 years to avoid detection. Starring frequent Johnson collaborator Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis as the older version of Levitt’s character, Looper pits the two against each other in a fight for control of their shared destiny. 

Like Kill Bill, this collaboration matured over a long period with Johnson working on the idea from 2002, a decade before its release. As such, there never seemed much chance that Levitt wouldn’t be his star, but there was at one point the possibility that he’d play a dual role, trading a prosthetic Willis nose for old-man makeup.

The Equalizer (2014)

The genre is light on hitman-as-hero options for obvious reasons, but The Equalizer aims to tell that kind of story with a lethal semi-retired government agent turned retail clerk and then vigilante.

Denzel Washington has built an impressive resume of action/thrillers over the last 25 years, punctuated by his five (and counting) collaborations with director Antoine Fuqua. But while nothing will likely match the power of their work together in 2001’s Training Day, the decade-spanning Equalizer trilogy is a formidable late-career franchise for Washington.

Inspired by the ‘80s TV show (which was later adapted as a Queen Latifah CBS procedural unrelated to the films), Washington was actually not the originally planned star; his Virtuosity and American Gangster co-star Russell Crowe was previously attached to the project.

John Wick (2014) 

“It’s not personal, it’s business” is a line that’s often uttered in hit man movies. But for John Wick, everything is very personal, with Keanu Reeves’s character being pulled back into an underworld of murder and unrelenting violence after the death of his wife and the puppy she gave him to help with his grief. 

The story itself tugs at the heartstrings and our need for a measure of justice, but the film excels due to the innovative nature of its fight choreography. There are a few movies on this list that treat action sequences like a dance, but John Wick’s execution and impact on the genre is special. 

Ironically, while this series is very closely tied to Reeves’s specific brand of action sequences due to his athleticism and understanding of martial arts, the original script was targeted toward action icons from another era like Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood, as Wick was supposed to be a senior citizen.

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