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John Wick, The Killer's Game, Netflix's Hit Man: why are we so into movies about guys who kill people for a living?

It's not just a Grosse Point Blank fetish, I swear (Well, probably not)

Hit Man
Image credit: Netflix

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Movies can be murder. Or, at least, that’s what it’s been feeling like recently, with Netflix’s much-hyped Hit Man, starring man-of-the-moment Glen Powell (who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Richard Linklater), dropping in the same week that the first trailer for the new Dave Bautista comedy The Killer’s Game debuts, underscoring once again that, really, hit man might be one of the finest careers a movie character can have.

The Killer's Game
Image credit: Lionsgate

Not that being a hit man always guarantees a good time for the audience, as I can attest as someone who sat through both The Hitman’s Bodyguard and The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, for reasons that remain elusive at this particular moment. (I don’t know what to tell you; I guess on some level, I hoped the sequel would be better than the first one, if only because it seemed difficult to imagine it being worse? Life finds a way, as Jeff Goldblum would remind us, however. Don’t make the same mistake that I did.) Nonetheless: if you look at the ever-expanding John Wick franchise as an early outlier, we’re now at three movies (or movie series) that demonstrate that, when it comes to leading men, hit men are back as a viable work option, baby… which raises the obvious question. Why?

There’s a temptation to suggest that it’s the artistic legacy of 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank, in which John Cusack played a depressed hit man who found love and, maybe happiness at his high school reunion. If nothing else, it’s clearly a movie that has played some role in inspiring both The Killer’s Game and Hit Man from the trailers of each of them, and it’s a movie that’s old enough — 27 years this summer, which is very upsetting to someone who remembers seeing this when it was new — that it genuinely could be a favorite that today’s filmmakers and actors have grown up with.

But surely something else has to be in play, right? After all, everyone also grew up loving Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s not as if the summer is perpetually filled with archaeologist movies. (Perhaps if The Mummy had been a bigger hit, that might be different.) It’s not as if John Cusack’s other movies have had similar impact, as much as we all agree that Love & Mercy ranks in the upper echelon of musical biopics; there’s not a rush in theaters for movies that take their lead from Martian Child, or even Must Love Dogs, after all.

Could the secret instead be that hit man is secretly one of those weird wish fulfillment jobs that aren’t necessarily even real* but we, as an audience, desperately would like to have despite that? I can’t quite get past that idea as the reason why we’re seeing a quiet resurgence in the hit man as a cinematic lead. And who could blame us for wishing that could be us? Hit men aren’t just an iteration of the ever-popular on-screen badass, they’re so badass that they’ve made being their actual job. They’re the badasses that other badasses hire to get the job done. Think of the potential bragging rights available to those guys.

John Wick
Image credit: Lionsgate

Even better: think about the story potential available in unpicking that idea — is it enough to call it a stereotype or cliche, at this point? Perhaps — in manners that are both purposefully tragic (John Wick’s original installment showing the emotional cost of the lifestyle) and intentionally humorous (The Killer’s Game). There’s a lot of opportunity for such movies to explore questions and ideas that an audience who understands the basic idea of a hitman might have, and thereby enjoy some level of familiarity and buy-in without too much effort. If we all wish we were hitmen, then it only stands to reason that we’d want to know what makes them tick, right…?

This is where Netflix’s Hit Man comes into its own: it’s a movie that is, at heart, not about a real hitman, but about the mystique of the hitman as an idea, and a wish-fulfillment figure, and how people can… well, get lost in that idea if they’re not too careful. Even someone whose entire job is to play on that belief for their own purposes.

It’s as metatextual an idea as a romantic comedy could want — take that, The Fall Guy — and an unassailable hook for a movie, it has to be said. Will it be too smart for its own good and accidentally bring the current hitman trend to an end just as it’s getting started? We’ll be paying attention to see over the next few months, but even if it does, we shouldn’t worry too much. After all, we’re about due for a revival of the self-consciously metatextual spy movies as rom-com idea right about now, aren’t we…?

* - Oh... sorry about pointing out that hitmen aren't necessarily an actual thing that really exists in the real world. It just seemed polite to let you know.

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