Classic Film Review: Stephen Frears makes John Hurt an assassin, Terrence Stamp “The Hit” (1984)

The only thing I remember about “The Hit” is how much Siskel & Ebert raved about it back in the day, that “day” being 1985.

An Island Pictures release that didn’t make it to “the provinces,” especially the province I was living in at the time, it stands out today as the movie that illustrates “casting against type” better than most any title one can name.

It stars John Hurt and Terrence Stamp, but with the always-wounded-looking, so fragile, so-very-British Hurt (“Alien,” “Contact,””Midnight Express” and “Heaven’s Gate”) as the hired killer, and veteran tough-bloke Stamp (the Christopher Reeve “Superman,” “The Limey,” just seen in “Last Night in Soho”) as his ever-so-Zen target.

Death? “It’s just a moment. We’re here. Then we’re not here. We’re somewhere else… maybe. And it’s as natural as breathing. Why should we be scared?”

I’ve been a Stamp fan forever, and I dare say he smiles more in this one movie than in any ten other films he ever made. And grinning Willie Parker, beaming in the opening scenes, a witness protection star in court (a young Jim Broadbent plays the questioning barrister), grinning even more after he’s kidnapped in Spain ten years later, instantly becomes one of Stamp’s finest screen creations.

Stephen Frears (“Philomena,””Victoria & Abdul”) made an auspicious theatrical feature film debut with this nervy, violent and reflective “road picture,” a tale of two hit men, their mark and a “witness” they nab along the way as they make their way from southern Spain to Paris.

The cleverest touch in Peter Prince’s script is one of the most memorably menacing “running gags” in all of cinema. As the criminal compadres Willie “grassed” (ratted out, squealed on) are led from court, they serenade him with a song Vera Lynn made famous during “The War.”

“We’ll…meet again…don’t know where…don’t know WHEN…”

It’s the first thing that comes to mind when smiling Willie figures out who’s grabbed him and taken him from his life of comfort and luxury outside a small town (Almodóvar, Córdoba) in the sunbaked south where he’s been laying low.

The four Spanish toughs he tried to fight off weren’t the real culprits. Willie almost knows their fate before they do. This officious, short and silent man in Cuban heel boots, a linen suit, cigarette and Raybans was calling the shots. That makes Willie sing — “I know we’ll meet again…some sunny day!”

Braddock (Hurt) the mostly-silent stranger is called. He has a young, mouthy punk of a protege (Tim Roth, barely of shaving age here) in tow. Braddock blowing up most of the blokes who first grabbed Willie wasn’t the subtlest move. They can hear about the nationwide manhunt that’s begun on the radio, but only Willie speaks Spanish. They can see the photos on the newspapers, which only Willie can read.

They’re taking him to Paris, and that news contributes to Willie’s Most Relaxed Condemned Man Ever manner. He smirks and runs through the possibilities, the fact that their current car is known to the police (Fernando Rey of “The French Connection” has almost no lines as their stoic pursuer), that there’s a hard border crossing into France to be managed.

“I’m sure true love will see us through!”

The assassin is silent. The kid protests, “You’ve got nothing to smile about mate, if you knew.” “If I knew?” Willie turns to his executioner. “He thinks I don’t know.

Their odyssey will require another car, more murders, another kidnapping (Laura del Sol), and another victim who isn’t quite so mellow about what she is sure will be their shared fate. Maggie fights and schemes and will not go quietly.

What this classic film captures is a sunny, sleepy pre-European Union Spain, with bad roads, tiny towns and cantinas that the world had passed by, and the most breathtaking scenery of any hit man thriller.

Hurt’s killer-of-few-words is a classic type, not new to the genre but almost definitive thanks to his poker-faced portrayal. “The kid” apprentice is also a type. But the smiling, laid-back and at peace with it all victim is something new, and Stamp gives Willie charm and an infuriating passivity.

We don’t need Maggie’s rages to come to that conclusion. This guy either knows something will break his way if he picks his moment, or truly is at peace with his fate.

Everything about “The Hit” is archetypal and genre-defining. “The Hit” prefigured John Woo’s “The Killer” and those two 1980s movies reset the template for the genre.

And looking at it nearly 40 years later, what stands out is the moment-in-time perfection of it all. Hurt was having his big cinema moment, but this cast him against type. Stamp was starting a comeback that has carried on, almost to this very day. Roth announced he was ready for the spotlight.

And TV director Frears showed himself as a director to be reckoned with. “Prick up Your Ears” and “My Beautiful Launderette,” “Sammie and Rosie Get Laid,” “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Dirty Pretty Things,” “The Van,” “High Fidelity” would follow, making him one of the most accomplished British directors of his generation, the best British filmmaker never to have a damned thing to do with Harry Potter.

Rating: R, bloody violence, profanity

Cast: John Hurt, Terrence Stamp, Laura del Sol, Tim Roth, Fernando Rey, Bill Hunter and Jim Broadbent.

Credits:Directed by Stephen Frears, scripted by Peter Prince. An Island Pictures/MGM Video release on Tubi, Amazon and other streamers

Running time: 1:38

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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