Warning: there may be trouble ahead…the giveaway is in the title really, as you can’t have a list of the best assassin movies without breaking a few legs. Or shooting a few people in the head. Or some intense staring from afar while you plot the demise of your target. Why do we love a contract killer so much? I guess it’s escapism, a chance to live out all our most grotesque human revenge fantasies. Passive aggression just won’t cut it some days, and if that’s how you’re feeling right now, reach for one of these films!
La Femma Nikita (1990)
Luc Besson is the Papa Français of the adolescent female assassin movie genre and was married to leading actress Anne Parrillaud at the time of making the film, but let’s make like Roland Barthes and separate his obsession with teenage girls from the work at hand before things get problematic.
A huge commercial success, this film was remade not once but twice and two TV series were released based on it. The titular character of La Femme Nikita was a junkie, recruited by government handlers after robbing a pharmacy. They fake her death, train her up and boom! We have Nikita, The Teenage Human Slayer. Wonderful Tchèky Karyo, Jean Reno and Jeanne Moreau provide excellent support to Parillaud’s nihilistic anti-heroine. The film focuses on the difficulty of leading a double life, but also has some super cute outfits in which she shoots people. So French, so sexy, SO good.
Director: Luc Besson
You can’t have a list of the best assassin films without Léon. Only four years after he released La Femme Nikita, Besson delved back into the world of female contract killers with this cult classic.
If anyone reading this is as ancient as I am, you’ll remember the impact of this heartbreakingly beautiful film when it was released. Natalie Portman’s first film performance was an indication of the huge talent she has continued to display over three decades of filmmaking. Playing 12-year-old Mathilda, desperate to find those responsible for the death of her family, Portman manages to combine steely determination and crushing vulnerability. When Mathilda is taken in by hitman Léon, (Jean Reno), he reluctantly teaches her the trade. A take on the “odd couple” set up which I certainly hadn’t seen before and which affected me deeply. Gary Oldman as the bad guy will make your blood run cold – he’s so good at that, isn’t he? In short, a classic.
Fun fact: the story is said to have been adapted from George Eliot’s classic novel Silas Marner. What the what?!
Director: Luc Besson
Grosse Point Black (1997)
I’ll just get this out of the way now before things get awkward. I LOVE THIS FILM. Now, let us count the ways: John Cusack achieves Han Solo levels of cool as a hitman who decides to attend his ten year high school reunion, in an attempt to re-connect with the woman he has been obsessing about since he vanished on prom night. He has to do a job while he is there, and hence things become complicated, with love, death, explosions and dancing in a school hall along the way. It’s a really funny, smart, highly quotable script with so much heart. This is already a great start – but then you add in a supporting cast of Minnie Driver, Dan Ackroyd, Alan Arkin, Joan Cusack and Jeremy Piven. Could this get any better? Oh yes…it’s the 90s, so the soundtrack is totally excellent. All together now: “When I’m a walking I strut my stuff and I’m so strung out” – the Violent Femmes classic Blister in the Sun is the main tune you’ll be humming after watching this movie, and who doesn’t want that in their head? Currently available on Disney Plus, so you have no excuses not to watch this assassin movie genre entry right now.
Director: George Armitage
Kill Bill (2003)
An assassin movie that spawned millions of Hallowe’en costumes, and one of Tarantino’s best. Some might say his last great movie before he became a Hollywood blank cheque. Uma Thurman plays The Bride in this iconic and stylish American martial arts film – The Bride is a woman who sets out to destroy her husband, Bill, and his team of killers after they attempted to kill her and her unborn child. I’d have done the same in her shoes and I feel confident most women would agree with me. She succeeds in tracking down a number of her targets but leaves more to be done in Kill Bill Part II…
Tarantino pays homage to grindhouse cinema: martial arts, blaxploitation, and spaghetti westerns – it is a fantastic thrill ride that never lets up. Not for the hemophobics amongst us, but then none of these flicks is really. The supporting cast is sensational and includes Darryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, Sonny Chiba, Michael Madsen and David Carradine. For me, the scenes with O-Ren (Lucy Liu) are the most spectacular.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
In Bruges (2008)
Martin McDonagh made his name an internationally recognisable one with this hilarious, bleak story of two hitmen hiding from their furious boss after a botched job. Brendon Gleeson as Ken and Colin Farrell as Ray make a sparkling double act. Honestly, I’d watch Brendon Gleeson read the telephone book but, a) He probably has better things to do and b) Who even has a telephone book anymore? Luckily for me, (and you), he gets a little more to do here and puts in a heartbreakingly lovely performance. Colin Farrell shines as frustrated and angry Ray and Ralph Fiennes is chilling as the boss. Of course, all is not as it seems and the two men form a begrudging bond. Aww, cute. But also, there’s some violence and death because it is an assassin movie.
In Bruges premiered at Sundance 2008 and picked up nominations and awards across the BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Oscars. Not bad for a feature debut.
Director: Martin McDonagh
13 Assassins (2010)
I’m gonna go out on a limb and surmise that this film boasts the highest number of assassins of any on this list. Not only that but it is a properly gritty, film-buff friendly ode to the entire notion of vengeance. A simple premise: a group of paid killers come together for a suicide mission to kill an evil lord. Much like the Ronseal of the group, this movie does what it says on the tin.
A remake of a 1963 film of the same name, director Takashi Miike, (possibly better known for the über violent but equally revered Audition) received critical acclaim across the world for this film. In a nutshell, the story is a simple tale of an evil Lord who rapes/murders and mutilates at will, but is protected due to his status in society – enter the vengeful 13, cue bloody scenes. Frankly, a film about nepotism and how privileged people don’t follow the same rules as everyone else, feels timely.
Director: Takashi Miike
Kill List (2011)
A film which scared the life out of me, in the best way, this gritty British psychological horror is Ben Wheatley at his finest. Stark realism, gruesome violence and a light sprinkling of supernatural horror – tick, tick and tick! Neil Maskell, as the lead character Jay, tells you all you need to know with his pared back performance… it’s all in his eyes. Jay is a tortured man who has returned from Kiev with demons aplenty. His life descends into sheer madness and depravity as he begins taking jobs as a contract killer – to be fair, you wouldn’t expect a real sense of wellbeing in that line of work now would you? Michael Smiley and MyAnna Burning are both excellent as his partners in work and life.
This is one of the most affecting pieces of British Cinema in the last decade and is currently available on All 4, I highly recommend you check it out. But be warned – you’ll need a strong constitution to cope with the gnarly bits.
Director: Ben Wheatley
Bear with me, because I’ve ventured into the left field here. Is this a classic film? No. It’s a film about a woman fighting to keep her sanity intact in the wake of her husband’s assassination. Oh, and she happens to be Jackie Onassis Kennedy – giveaway was in the title. Natalie Portman won rave reviews for her performance in this otherworldly tribute to a 20th-century icon – and rightly so, she is sublime. Not only does director Pablo Larraín paint a portrait of grief, but also of the weight of an entire nation’s mourning on one human. Jackie drifts between rooms at the White House as she attempts to hold her proverbial sh*t together for her small children, but also, for America. Protocol must be followed at all costs – even the cost of her heartbreak. This is tonally completely different to anything else on this list, but a refreshing palate cleanse perhaps…should you decide to work your way through the list.
Director: Pablo Larraín
The Sisters Brothers (2018)
One of the best and most inspirational films I saw at the cinema in 2018, and still a firm fave after a recent rewatch on Netflix, The Sisters Brothers is a superb first foray into English language films from filmmaker Jacques Audiard. A western, set in 1851, it tells the tale of brothers Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C Reillly) as they undertake to find and take out Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) who is causing trouble in the gold trade. A middle man, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been engaged to deliver Warm to them, so they can seal the deal. Things become more complex when Morris and Warm start working together…The film builds in tension throughout as the relationship between the brothers becomes more and more strained. The denouement is breathtaking.
Now I don’t often enjoy films that largely exclude female characters, but I make an exception here. This is a thoroughly enjoyable horseback ride through America’s plains and hills. Every detail is exquisitely realised – from costume to cinematography and of course, with that cast you can expect stunning performances all around. Plus – that’s quite some line-up of sexy cowboys, ain’t it?
Director: Jacques Audiard
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
Since when did the spin-off far exceed the original? Since Birds of Prey! Margot Robbie, being the total badass female movie heroine(!) that she is, pitched the idea for a Harley Quinn-centric sequel to the flop that was Suicide Squad, and the result is this vibrant, funny, violent and supremely superior comic book adaptation. Harley is the quirkiest killer on our assassin list as she goes through her break-up with the Joker and recruits a band of deadly compadres. Amongst them is trained killer Helena Bertinelli aka The Huntress, who is out to avenge her family’s death. A woman of few words but impressive skills with a crossbow – suffice to say that this group of assembled misfits (they area no Goodfellas) kick ass in the most glorious manner, and leave the ending wide open for a sequel…Thusly, the movie gods are happy!
Director: Cathy Yan
I hope you’ve enjoyed holding my hand as we gaily skip through the magical lands of contract killing with our best assassin movies list. For me, it has been a revelation – I never realised how much I love assassin movies until I started writing this piece, and could easily reel off ten more. If you would like to join the conversation, please do jump in! Get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org or on our socials: Facebook & Twitter.