Hit­man 101: Life les­sons from Hol­ly­wood’s top-tier as­sas­sins

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There are many types of movies about peo­ple who deal in death to make a liv­ing. There’s the cold-blooded killer story, the revenge drama and even comedic takes on killing for fun and profit. As­sas­sins can be men, women, chil­dren and even ro­bots.

In this week­end’s Amer­i­can As­sas­sin, Michael Keaton is the teacher, a Cold War vet­eran who trains un­der­cover ex­e­cu­tion­ers. He teaches counter-ter­ror­ism op­er­a­tive Mitch Rapp, played by Dy­lan O’brien, the ropes of the killing game.

A quick look back at decades of death mer­chant movies re­veals a set of rules as­sas­sins will al­ways fol­low.

When we first met John Wick, for in­stance, he re­sem­bles the Sad Keanu meme. He’s a bro­ken-hearted man whose wife has re­cently passed away. He’s a loner un­til a pack­age ar­rives at his door. It’s a puppy, sent by his wife just be­fore she died, in the hopes that the dog’s love will help ease his pain. For a time it works, but when some very bad men break into his house to steal his Mus­tang, the dog winds up as col­lat­eral dam­age. With the last liv­ing touch­stone to his late wife gone, Wick re­verts back to his old ways as a mad, bad and dan­ger­ous-to-know as­sas­sin bent on revenge. We learn that you can quit, but you’ll al­ways get pulled back in.

“Peo­ple keep ask­ing if I’m back and I haven’t re­ally had an an­swer,” says Wick. “But now, yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back. So you can ei­ther hand over your son or you can die scream­ing along­side him!“

Charles Bron­son, as the skilled slayer in The Me­chanic, teaches his young pro­tégé, played by Jan-michael Vin­cent, some ba­sic hit­man les­sons. “Mur­der is only killing with­out a li­cense,” he says, adding that when you shoot some­one, do it right. “You al­ways have to be dead sure. Dead sure or dead.”

That’s key killer ad­vice, but slow down, there is a pro­gres­sion to be­com­ing a hit­man.

In The Pro­fes­sional, Leon (Jean Reno) de­tails the sys­tem. “The ri­fle is the first weapon you learn how to use,” he says, “be­cause it lets you keep your dis­tance from the client. The closer you get to be­ing a pro, the closer you can get to the client. The knife, for ex­am­ple, is the last thing you learn.”

Movie as­sas­sins also learn that re­la­tion­ships are ver­boten. Re­mem­ber what hap­pened to Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Brad Pitt and An­gelina Jolie)? “Your aim’s as bad as your cook­ing sweet­heart,” taunts John to Jane, “and that’s say­ing some­thing!”

Once they’ve learned the ropes, one ques­tion re­mains: Why do movie as­sas­sins kill?

In Three Days of the Con­dor, Max Von Sy­dow’s rea­son­ing for do­ing what he does is chill­ingly sim­ple. “The fact is, what I do is not a bad oc­cu­pa­tion,” he says. “Some­one is al­ways will­ing to pay.”


dy­lan o’brien learns the ropes of the killing game in amer­i­can as­sas­sin.

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