The Hit is a movie that sneaks up on you. It's very low-energy for a crime thriller--there are bursts of action, yes, but for most of its running time, it's more of a character study. However, director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Prince are up to something more. We're not hearing dialogue for dialogue's sake; quietly, between the lines, they're choreographing a delicate battle of wills and wits that comes to a brutal head at the picture's conclusion. It's a film that demands patience, but rewards it.
Terence Stamp stars as Willie Parker, a low-level gangster who testifies against the big boss and an assortment of his henchmen. As he strolls out afterwards, they stand and perform a bile-filled (but rousing) acapella rendition of "We'll Meet Again" (this is reportedly inspired by a real incident), so Parker gets the hint and takes off for Spain. Ten years later, as he's enjoying a life of leisure, he's suddenly kidnapped by a gang of hooligans and turned over to two men who have been sent to kill him.
The older and more experienced of the pair is Mr. Braddock, played by John Hurt, who does the strong, silent thing quite believably here. With him is the novice hotshot Myron, played by a very young, very blonde Tim Roth. The dynamic of the older, wiser hitman showing the youngster the ropes has been done to death, but these fine actors bring some genuine dimension to a potentially trite construct. Braddock keeps his cool and is always in control, but Hurt is brusque and convincing in a chilling sequence where a simple stop at a gas station goes horribly awry. Roth has a nicely menacing quality; he too has one show-off scene, a rough encounter in a dumpy roadside bar (I liked how Frears shoots the inevitable fight in one long, moving wide shot).
The hitmen plan to take Parker to France and do the deed there; however, their escape doesn't go exactly as planned and they need to pick up a new car, fast. They pay a visit to an old friend of Braddock's to get new wheels, and take his girlfriend Maggie (Laura del Sol) as insurance that he'll keep quiet. Maggie is no pushover--she's a scrapper (and a biter), and once these four are in that car together, embarking on some kind of a twisted "road movie," the psychological elements begin to come into play.
Prince's script plays each of these characters off the other ingeniously; Myron has the hots for Maggie, Willie fakes a chuminess with Myron and starts casting doubts in his mind about Braddock, Myron develops a begrudging respect for Willie, and so on. Stamp is terrific in a scene late in the film where he explains his Zen-like philosophy to Hurt ("I've had ten years to get ready for this"); it's a fine snapshot of two skilled professionals facing off in a quiet but intense fashion (and I mean that both in terms of the actors and the characters).
By the time we get to the climax, Frears and Prince have subtly crafted such a potent and complex combination of interpersonal dynamics, we realize that we have no idea how it's going to turn out--or even how we want it to turn out. It's not the cheeriest conclusion, but it's certainly a satisfying and appropriate one.
Not all of Frears' experiments work (I'm not sure why he bothered to get an actor of Fernando Rey's skill to play the cop tailing the quartet if he wasn't going to give him anything to do or say), but I have to say, this is a much nimbler filmmaker than the man who crafted the entertaining but somewhat lead-footed Gumshoe over a decade earlier (he directed only one film, but a lot of television, in the interim). He was a year away My Beautiful Laundrette, his breakthrough picture, but this is the work of a more confident director; he stylishly utilizes a restless, constantly moving camera when he can, while somehow keeping the film's abundant car scenes visually stimulating (no mean feat, that). He's clearly having a good time making a big movie and playing with his toys, but always at the service of the story and overall tone (as in his brutally effective straight-overhead camerawork at the conclusion of the aforementioned gas station sequence). The London prologue is evocatively dark and dank, providing a nice contrast to the lovely, sun-drenched photography of the rest of the picture.
We've come to expect top quality from the good folks at Criterion, and while The Hit is not their most mind-blowing transfer, it's still quite sturdy and good-looking. Some of the colors are a bit faded, but no more than expected for a film of this age, and they do pop occasionally (especially in the foliage in a forest scene before the climax). There's some light grain (a bit heavy in a couple of low-light scenes), but no dirt or scratches. In general, the anamorphic 1.78:1 frame is crisp and robust, with plenty of rich blacks and fine contrast.
The Hit is presented with its original monaural audio track, and it's about as good as you can ask for, within those limitations. Dialogue is clear and clean with no clipping or audibility issues. The effects and excellent music (by Paco de Lucía, with an evocative opening track by Eric Clapton) are well-mixed and well-modulated.
The supplemental features are a little light here (especially for a Criterion disc), but they're high quality. First we have an Audio Commentary with Frears, Prince, Hurt, Roth, and editor Mick Audsley. As is the norm for Criterion tracks, it has been assembled from individual recording sessions (and a two-man recording with Frears and Prince) into a fairly seamless commentary without long pauses or unfortunate narration. It's a little dry but still quite informative, with some funny throwaway lines for cinephiles (during a scene where Hurt holds up a younger picture of Stamp for comparison, Frears notes that the still is from Poor Cow, and then muses, "See, we did it years before Steven Soderbergh").
Next up is an extended interview with Stamp from the British chat show "Parkinson One-To-One" (36:58). This 1988 interview with host Michael Parkinson is quite fascinating; Stamp seems uncomfortable at first (he's very halting in his speech), but he gets over that fairly quickly and goes on to tell some very good stories from his long career. Highlights include his descriptions of meeting Rita Hayworth, his friendship with Michael Caine, and his experience working with Marlon Brando in Superman (and, for the record, he does a pretty decent Brando imitation).
The moody original theatrical Trailer (2:59) closes out the bonus features, but check out the enclosed booklet for an excellent essay on the film by Graham Fuller, who perceptively pinpoints The Hit's influence on more recent European crime dramas like Gangster No. 1, Sexy Beast, and In Bruges.
The Hit certainly won't appeal to all tastes; its languid pace and deceptively low-key tone may test the patience of some viewers. But those willing to give themselves over to the picture will find it a rewarding and intriguing trip, full of first-rate performances and skillful touches from a director who was really starting to show what he could do.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.