The Hit (1984)

Directed by Stephen Frears; Written by Peter Prince

Under the Spanish sun, two henchmen sent by London’s criminal underworld await the handoff of the man they were sent to collect: a snitch who ten years earlier sent his associates and friends to jail, fingering them from the literal high place of the testifier’s booth by describing their involvement in robberies and acts of violence with a cheeky swagger. 

As he’s lead out, tumult; the angered accused sing out: 

We’ll meet again
Don’t know when, don’t know where
But I know we’ll meet again
Some sunny day

Ghostly echoes float on the sunshine as Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) is dumped into the backseat of a car already occupied by the two hitmen Myron and Braddock played by Tim Roth and John Hurt respectively, marking the start of their trip towards France and Willie’s death. Police trail in pursuit, finding the breadcrumbs of the damage and terror these deft (or daft) hitmen leave in their wake on a journey where things keep going pear-shaped. 

The Hit is a blend of comedy, intense violence, and philosophical ponderings that you wouldn’t expect from its premise. As it turns out, Parker has had time to reconcile with his likely fate while hiding out in sunny Spain, reading according to him “a library of books,” all meant to steer him into the afterlife with an unfurrowed brow, resigned to the grand order of things where death is just another stop on the line. 

What that leaves is a uncanny road movie featuring a sage hardman, a taciturn professional in John Hurt, somehow never young, and his debutante apprentice in the shape of a young Tim Roth, leering with this newfound violence he’s capable of and boyish in his giddy cruelty. Together with Stamp’s Willie, a resigned zen master free in his supposed acceptance of what’s to become of him, they’re a representative of a cycle of men at each their own crossroads on this life of crime. 

It’s impossible for Willie to not see his younger self in Tim Roth’s Myron, hungry for the cowboy life, and for Hurt’s Braddock to be unsettled by the lack of fear Willie shows for the vengeful machine Braddock is part of. Something now so ingrained in him that to step out is a terrible thought, not just for fear of loss of life, but for loss of identity.

Together, the three performances by Stamp, Roth and Hurt are enough to keep The Hit compelling even as it wavers along the way, dipping into sudden violence in order to establish and maintain the bodily threat and then shift gears to let Willie needle his companions and orate from his pulpit backseat, as Stamp’s bite of a voice speaks of celestial destinies while the smell of blood hangs in the air. 

Outside of that, there are a few peaks where Frears does more with less; one scene stands out in particular, featuring Bill Hunter as a lackey who’s emasculated by Braddock as the trio makes a stop at a hideout in Madrid, a scene that would have a level of comedy to it were it not for the iron vice of fear that Braddock’s quiet unpredictability brings. 

It’s testimony to the hard edges that Frears can evoke with his direction, a talent he rolls out a few more times during the films runtime, but it’s not as consistent a pleasure, with the pulpy action unearthing him at times. All things being equal, it’s a special treat to observe the trinity of Hurt, Stamp and Roth, both on their own and together as they offer a complete dissection of a cinematic archetype that in Frear’s England has closer ties to the blue collar working class than its American showboating cousin. 

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