The setup of this 1984 thriller is simple: After informing on his criminal compatriots, Cockney gangster Willie (Terence Stamp) disappears to Spain’s Costa del Sol. Ten years later, a professional killer (John Hurt) with a new apprentice (Tim Roth) turns up with orders to bring Willie to Paris for execution. As they drive across scenic Spain, Willie starts to unnerve his captors with his Zen-like acceptance of his fate. Yes, it’s that evergreen trope: thugs waxing philosophical (see also Pulp Fiction, Sexy Beast, In Bruges, etc.). But in the hands of Stephen Frears (The Grifters), the familiar story becomes an eerie musing on the various ways a person faces death.
The Hit was a commercial failure, perhaps because it was both ahead of its time and a throwback. Frears makes nods to Michelangelo Antonioni (especially The Passenger) and Nicholas Roeg with his slow-burn mood and extreme focal lengths. And, as Frears wryly notes on this disc’s audio commentary, he anticipated Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey by 15 years in drawing an image from Stamp’s younger self (taken from 1967 Ken Loach drama Poor Cow) for a bit of backstory.
Then again, that might be Soderbergh’s homage to this underseen gem; both directors use Stamp in a complex, multifaceted manner. Even The Hit’s commentary track is a collage, Frears and screenwriter Peter Prince recording one conversation together, while editor Mick Audsley, Roth and Hurt each testify separately. At first, the repetition of certain anecdotes feels sloppy, but after a while it’s apt, matching the film’s sideways approach to the conventions of the road movie.—Hank Sartin