So I watched the Zoe Saldana movie “Colombiana” a couple weeks ago and it made me realize something about the whole genre of assassin/killer movies. Clarification: when I say “killer”, I’m talking about contract killers/hitmen/assassins, not serial killers or slasher movie villains. Those kinds of killers are always evil. But what “Colombiana” made me realize about assassin movies is that the viewer is always meant to sympathize with the person doing the killing, not with the person being killed.
Wait, hold on a second. Killing is a sin, right? I don’t mean to get all religious here, but whatever happened to “thou shalt not murder?” I mean heck, that’s not even a particularly religious statement. Most people who aren’t sociopaths would probably agree with it, regardless of their particular religious beliefs. So why are we meant to sympathize with the assassin, who is essentially a serial killer who kills people for money instead of killing random victims?
The simple answer is that the victims in assassin movies are always more evil than the assassins themselves, so we don’t feel sorry for them. The people being assassinated in these types of films are always gangsters, drug dealers, pimps, corrupt government officials, dictators, and various other types of assorted douchebags. The viewer is meant to say, “Okay, this guy is clearly evil, and the world is probably better off without him.” This then provides a certain degree of satisfaction when we see the evildoer get bumped off, and we like the assassin for ridding the world of these assorted evildoers.
Okay, fine. So far, so good. But here’s where it gets complicated. What about the people that aren’t evil douchebags? What does the assassin do for work when he (or she) isn’t offing various evil scoundrels and hooligans? In most assassin movies, the assassin is portrayed as being an inherently good (or at least somewhat morally ambiguous) person, who only kills criminals and the like. Take Leon in “The Professional”, for example. What’s his motto? “No women, no kids.” Everyone else is fair game. I may kill people for money, but I have standards, damn it. Not killing people who are seen to be innocent is key to the audience’s acceptance of the assassin as a sympathetic character. If they got paid to go whack some random guy walking his dog or some soccer mom taking her kids to school, we wouldn’t like them anymore because they killed someone we didn’t think should have been killed. (Now that I think about it, Luc Besson seems to specialize in sympathetic-killer movies, what with “The Professional”, “Colombiana”, and “Nikita”, which I haven’t seen but understand to be a similar idea.)
But the problem is that I have a hard time believing that the assassin wouldn’t take the odd easy contract on the side to supplement his or her income a little, as well as take a bit of a break. I mean, wouldn’t it be nice to have a nice, easy job for once, where you could just whack someone simply and easily without having to devise an elaborate scheme to infiltrate the target’s heavily fortified compound and kill the guy in some creative way to make it look like an accident, then escape without anyone knowing you were there? (Look at the opening scene of Jason Statham in “The Mechanic”, for example). Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little relief? But if movie assassins do get this kind of relief, the movie itself will rarely, if ever, show it.
But think for a minute of real assassins. I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of real-life assassins or anything, but my understanding is that these are folks who are paid by the mafia and various other criminal organizations to kill people that are in their way somehow. Take, for example, Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, a real-life contract killer who worked for some very real New York crime families and claimed to have murdered over 250 people over four decades. The guy was a serial killer before he became a contract killer; he killed random people who ticked him off before he became associated with crime families and started killing people for money. He stabbed, shot, poisoned, asphyxiated, burned and beat people to death. Part of the reason the cops couldn’t catch him was because he varied his methods so much.
I think most people would agree that this guy was a pretty bad dude, if not a complete monster. But the sympathetic movie assassin is never portrayed like Kuklinski. The movie assassin doesn’t kill just anybody, only bad people. There are a couple of movies about Kuklinski in the works as a matter of fact, but you can bet that he won’t be portrayed like the usual discerning movie assassin.
Another thing worth pointing out is that the discerning movie assassin is also frequently depicted as having had some kind of experience that caused them to become an assassin. They usually had some traumatic or otherwise formative experience that led them to become killers: their parents were killed in front of them by mobsters when they were children (“Colombiana”), they were trained by the government to become killers (the “Bourne” films), they were raised by secret societies who trained them to be assassins (“Hitman”, “Ninja Assassin”), or their father was actually a super-assassin who passed on his killing abilities to his kid (“Wanted”, “Hanna” ). Those last two examples are admittedly a bit far-fetched, but some kind of explanation is frequently necessary if the audience is meant to sympathize with the assassin. (I mean hell, people tend to forget that Arnold Schwarzenegger was evil in the first Terminator movie, and good in the sequels. The explanation? The rebels took over the robot factory in the future, and reprogrammed Arnie to be a good killer robot instead of an evil one. Evil to good, just like that.)
But the really interesting thing is that all of this only really applies if the assassin is the main character of the movie. Supporting characters in movies who are assassins are usually evil. I certainly don’t mean to imply that all movie assassins are meant to be sympathetic, because they’re not. Plenty of movies have assassins of some kind as villains. How many movies are there where some innocent, good-hearted person is marked for death by some bad dude with a grudge or vendetta of some kind, or for some other reason? We’ve all seen the movie trailer where assassins are chasing someone down and some random bystander comes to the rescue, and of course the bystander turns out to be a total badass. Look at Clive Owen in “Shoot ‘Em Up”. Look at the trailer for “Safe”, Jason Statham’s latest. Look at the first three Terminator movies, and Kyle Reese’s classic line, “Come with me if you want to live.” That line pretty much sums up an entire subgenre.
Another thing I’ve noticed about assassin movies is that there is frequently the worn-out or world-weary assassin, who is tired of running around the world murdering people and decides to retire, to get out of the game. Look at Bruce Willis in “Red”. Look at Jason Statham in “Killer Elite”. (You may have noticed that this is the third Statham film I’ve mentioned, and that is because Statham is awesome. Any movie ever could be improved with a little Statham. Forget “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” But “Pride and Prejudice and JASON FREAKING STATHAM??!!” HELL yes.)
I mean seriously, what happens in the very first scene of “Killer Elite”? Jason Statham and Robert De Niro kill a few carloads worth of people, only for Statham to have a change of heart when he discovers a kid in the backseat of one of the cars full of freshly-murdered folks. He promptly decides that he’s done killing people for a living, despite having given no indication of being tired of murderizing people in the moments prior to the hit, as we first see him shooting the shit with De Niro, talking about how crappy the food has been in all of the various countries they’ve murdered people in. If not for that one kid in the backseat, Statham might have gone on happily murderizing folks, but then there would have been no movie. (Thanks, backseat kid! You inadvertently provided the catalyst for the entire plot! Now I want to see “Killer Elite 2: Backseat Kid’s Revenge”, where the kid grows up and tries to exact revenge on Statham for murdering his father in front of him… come to think of it, that’s pretty much the entire plot of “Colombiana”, just without Jason Statham…hmmm…)
So… what does all of this mean, exactly? Why do I care enough about assassin movies, of all things, to write 1500 words about them? Well…I’m not sure exactly. I guess it’s because I find the characterization interesting. This is partly the English major in me speaking, I suppose, but this fascinates me. Why do we, as an audience, want to watch assassins of all people being portrayed as sympathetic?
Well, there are a lot of reasons for that that I can see. Part of it is, frankly, financial. Movie producers know that people want to be able to sympathize and identify with the protagonist, and that an unsympathetic protagonist may lead to diminished box-office returns, which they wish to avoid, so, boom, sympathetic assassin protagonist.
This applies to any other kind of movie, too, of course. We want to spend time with people we like. Who wants to go see a movie where the main character is a complete jackass? We want to like the characters in a film, and there are plenty of movies where the protagonist is a total jerk who learns to be a decent human being by the end of the movie (think of the title characters in “Thor” and “Iron Man”, for example, or look at Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” for an example in a completely different genre. I think part of the reason the recent “Green Hornet” movie was so widely disliked was because Seth Rogen’s character was such an absolute raging jackass for 90% of the movie).
But I think there’s more to it than that.
Okay, this next part might seem like a big leap in logic, but (like Indiana Jones) I’m kind of figuring this out as I go along so bear with me.
All right, here goes. (Deep breath)… I think this is about human nature. It’s about how people view other people.
Now, hang on. Before you say to yourself, “This guy’s nuts”, and take off, give me a second to explain. Why do people want sympathetic protagonists in the first place? Why do people want to be able to identify with the characters in a book or film or whatever? It is, I think, because people are inherently sympathetic to other people. People have a natural inclination to want to be able to identify with other people. I mean, sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part I really think that human beings have an inherent desire or ability or whatever you want to call it to see or believe the best about other people. Even people who kill other people for money.
Anyway, that is what I have realized about assassin movies. As a somewhat random side note, I watched the special features on the “Colombiana” DVD and they talked to the guy who directed the movie. His name is Olivier Megaton, which is a great name for a guy who directs action movies. But the really funny thing about Mr. Megaton is that he appears to be missing a front tooth on both his top and bottom rows of teeth. Seriously. I don’t know if he’s missing teeth or if he is just gap-toothed or what, it was just seriously weird to see this guy apparently missing two front teeth. Anyway, the real point of this little side note is to point out that “The Gap-Toothed Frenchmen” would be a great name for a rock band.