Judge Gordon Sullivan doesn't like to grass. His lawn is all cement.
Willie Parker grassed…ten years later they came for their revenge.
John Hurt has snuck up to be one of my favorite actors of late. Of course I grew up on the dulcet tones of his narration for Jim Henson's The Storyteller, but it was a long time before I connected his name to that voice. No, it was only in the last few years, with his brilliant roles in V for Vendetta and The Proposition, combined with his astute genre choices like the Harry Potter and Hellboy films that I came to appreciate his genius. When I saw that Criterion was releasing one of his Eighties films, The Hit, directed by the gentleman behind High Fidelity (Stephen Frears) and co-starring Tim Roth and Terence Stamp, I knew I was in. Of course I wasn't quite sure exactly what I was in for. The Hit undoubtedly combines interesting direction, amazing locations, brilliant performances, and a smart script, but the film may be less than the sum of its parts for many viewers.
Facts of the Case
Willie (Terence Stamp, Superman) is a crook who has decided to inform (or turn "grass" in the film's parlance) on his London underground cohorts. He knows this is a bad move, so he's packed off to the south of Spain to live out his days far from the reach of the criminals he's put away. Ten years go by in peace, until Willie returns home one day to a house full of thugs who kidnap him at the bidding of Mr. Braddock (John Hurt, Alien) and his assistant Myron (Tim Roth of Reservoir Dogs in his first film role). Braddock and Myron plan on taking Willie to Paris to see the boss he put away. By "see," I mean be murdered by. Things, however, are not quite going according to plan for Braddock and Myron: Willie is unnervingly complacent about his fate, the hit men have to take along a female witness (Laura del Sol, Carmen), and the Spanish police are after the group.
Rarely does a film get everything right, but The Hit manages to bat a thousand in just about every category. It all starts with a fantastic script by Peter Prince, who combines a crime picture with a road movie and comes out with an existential hybrid that looks by to the cool gangsters of Melville and forward to the ultra-violence of Tarentino. The four main characters are perfectly balanced. Willie is the ultimate Zen master. He's totally accepting of his death, which unnerves his killers to no end. What could have easily turned into a platitude-spouting guru role is instead given just enough humor to make his acceptance believable. Mr. Braddock is the polar opposite. Where Willie has given himself over to fate, Mr. Braddock is the consummate professional who attempts to control every detail. Although he doesn't reach Jean Reno levels of professionalism, Mr. Braddock is crafted as exactly the kind of guy you wouldn't want sent to kill you. Prince deliberately contrasts this professionalism with Myron, the young, violent kid on his first job. He attempts to replace experience with exuberance, and, although he's obviously a screw-up, he's a lovable one. Many writers would have stopped with this brilliant trio, but Prince adds Maggie, the captive who adds a world-weary innocence to the criminally minded boys' club.
These brilliant characters would have died on the page, however, without the help of the fine actors Frears has cast. Terence Stamp is absolutely perfect as Willie, delivering his lines with great gravitas but always with a little smile playing on the corners of his mouth. John Hurt looks slightly tubercular, but his Mr. Braddock is all business, very terse. John Hurt plays him as someone who's always watching his surroundings, even if he can't always keep the humanity out of his eyes. Tim Roth as Myron is much like his character, his youth and enthusiasm pitted against the age and experience of Hurt and Stamp. He's reminiscent of a young Gary Oldman and although his portrayal is hardly revelatory, it captures the character perfectly. Finally, Laura del Sol manages to be both feisty and vulnerable with very little dialogue.
Stephen Frears captures all this in a slightly offbeat manner. It's not full-blown experimentalism, but he holds certain shots longer than many directors would, finds interesting vistas to put his actors in front of, and manages to make the numerous car scenes visually engages. The film demonstrates his craftsmanship and points to why he seems like such a chameleon behind the camera.
I would be remiss if I didn't discuss the fifth and sixth most important members of the cast. The fifth is the Spanish countryside. Much of it is brown desert, but in front of Frears' camera it comes alive and reflects the souls of the characters. When the story moves towards more lush locations, the difference is striking, and it made me happy that Willie would see such beautiful sights before he died. The sixth member is Paco de Lucia, the famous flamenco guitarist who provided the majority of the score. Although the main title features a piece by Eric Clapton, the rest of the film is given over to Paco's Spanish guitar. The hauntingly beautiful lines provide the glue that keeps the picture together, even as the characters are spiraling apart.
Criterion brings us another fantastic DVD with The Hit. The video isn't perfect, with a little bit of color shift here and there, but considering the source and budget, the film looks fantastic. It's also difficult to judge, since much of the countryside is brown, dull, and blown out by the sun. The mono audio, however, is top-notch. Although I'm sure that given modern recording equipment the soundtrack (both dialogue and music) could have sounded better, not once during the film did I wish for a fuller audio presentation. Clapton and Paco's guitars are crystal clear and balance perfectly with the dialogue. The track doesn't feel "alive" like a newer recording might, but that's wishful thinking: what's here is great.
The part of me that enjoyed The Hit immensely wishes for a fuller set of extras, but what's here is great. First, we get a commentary with Stephen Frears, Peter Prince, Tim Roth, John Hurt, and Mick Audsley (the film's editor). It sounds like Frears and Prince were recorded together, and the rest of the group individually. This produces a track chockfull of information and different perspectives, with little down time. Next up is a TV interview with Stamp from 1988, where he discusses his early work. Rounding out the disc is the film's theatrical trailer. As usually, Criterion has provided a booklet, and this one features an essay by Graham Fuller which connects The Hit to more recent British crime films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All the parts of The Hit are polished to a bright sheen, but not all viewers are going to appreciate its brilliance. Those expecting a fast-paced bit of gunplay and witty lines are sure to be disappointed. The Hit is more easily comparable to a stage play by Harold Pinter: it's oddly dark, broody, and the end provides no relief.
Not the most "classic" film that Criterion has released, The Hit is an odd little genre blend featuring a smart script, strong performances, and satisfying direction. The audiovisual presentation is up to the usual Criterion standards, and the brief supplements add much to the film. It's recommended for any fans of British gangster films looking to see the genre turned on its head.
Even though Willie turned grass, the court finds The Hit not guilty.
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