17. Three Days of the Condor (1975)
From its gobsmackingly unforgettable opening wherein mild-mannered CIA analyst Joe Turner aka “Condor” (Robert Redford) returns to the office from lunch only to find his co-workers murdered, Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor is a paranoid-addled political thriller that doesn’t let up till the final frame.
As Joe frantically tries to elude Max Von Sydow’s ruthless hitman Joubert and figure out who he can and cannot trust –– including a woman who may or may not be involved, one Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway) –– and a cat-and-mouse game with CIA deputy director Higgins (Cliff Robertson), Pollack mounts tension, intrigue, and the post-Watergate zeitgeist with atmosphere and intrigue to spare.
An influential film with significant pop culture impact, Three Days of the Condor has been memorably referenced on the TV show Seinfeld, in Steven Soderbergh’s excellent 1998 crime comedy Out of Sight, in 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier, and a TV remake from Jason Smilovic and Todd Katzberg for Netflix in pre-production.
16. Prizzi’s Honor (1985)
In bleakly comedic fashion John Huston’s fortieth film asks the question: what would happen if two assassins fell in love? Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) is a hitman from a New York Mob family, meanwhile blonde bombshell Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner), whom Charley has the hots for all of a sudden, has a heat-packin’ history of her own.
Rounding out the A-list cast includes William Hickey, Robert Loggia, Lawrence Tierney, and Anjelica Huston, who won an Oscar for her role as the Don’s feisty granddaughter, Maerose. Prizzi’s Honor was nominated for eight Academy Awards back in 1985 (Anjelica being the only winner), and as dark and depressing as it sometimes gets it still manages to be comedic gold with an unforgettable finish.
15. The Assassin (2015)
Legendary Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s (Millennium Mambo) revenge-fuelled variation on the wuxia genre, The Assassin, is unlike any action film you’re likely to see.
While martial arts fans may be left out in the cold at this delicate, restrained, and original approach to sorcery and revenge, others will be blown away by Hou’s muscular long takes, the rich period details of the 9th-century Tang Dynasty setting, and the brilliant performance from the unerring Shu Qi in the astonishing titular role. Reflective, sumptuous, and endlessly inventive, this expertly choreographed film won the director’s prize at Cannes. An exceptional film for the arthouse crowd.
14. Day of the Jackal (1973)
Ostensibly the tale of an assassin nicknamed the Jackal (Edward Fox, excellent) hired to murder French president Charles de Gaulle (Adrien Cayla-Legrand) in the summer of 1963, legendary genre director Fred Zinnemann’s pulse-pounding Day of the Jackal is more complex, suspenseful, and exciting than so tidy a summation suggests.
Based off of Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel, Zinnemann’s masterful motion picture was hailed by Roger Ebert as “one hell of an exciting movie. [Day of the Jackal]’s not just a suspense classic, but a beautifully executed example of filmmaking. It’s put together like a fine watch.”
13. Fallen Angels (1995)
Another energetic, show-offy stylish overture from Wong Kar-Wai, 1995’s Fallen Angels stems from the same filmic cycle that produced Wong’s acknowledged 1990s masterpieces Chungking Express (1994) and Happy Together (1997).
This exhilarating movie, something of a portmanteau picture, involves a hit man named Wong Chi-ming (Leon Lai), his mysterious woman partner (Michelle Reis) and her oddball neighbor, an ex-con named Ho Chi-mo (Takeshi Kaneshiro).
As per usual with a Wong, the cinematic bravura on display is endlessly engaging and exciting, the basic rules of storytelling are tossed out the proverbial window in favor of muscular visual style, sometimes surreal, often cheeky, certainly indebted to Jean-Luc Godard, and cut to pop songs with a panache absent in most films from its era.
Cinematographer extraordinaire Christopher Doyle also deserves praise for his neon-lit interpretation of Hong Kong, like something from a comic book. Fallen Angels is certainly one of Wong’s most underrated executions and one worthy of all sorts of praise.
12. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
This neo-noir thriller from legendary action/suspense director John Frankenheimer is an inventive and sportive actioner. Technically dazzling thanks to Ferris Webster’s tight editing –– the pace and progress is key –– and Angela Lansbury’s nasty Mrs. Iselin (she pretty much steals the show from Frank Sinatra’s uneven platoon commander Captain Bennett Marco), The Manchurian Candidate takes some risks as it makes demands on audience expectations, and it mostly pays off, too.
Without getting into any spoilers, the film, adapted from Richard Condon’s 1959 bestseller, focusses on the brainwashing of a member of a prominent right-wing political family, making him an unwitting assassin in an international conspiracy.
Frankenheimer wisely injects satire and cynical black humor in this menacing movie that many deem a classic. For my money, this film lacks the dazzling go-for-broke bravura of Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), but Sinatra fans, which I am not, will love it, and there’s enough exciting and cleverness to make The Manchurian Candidate something of a mind-bender with loads of action and emotion.
11. The Bourne Identity (2002)
The Bourne film series, of which there have been five now, contain several stirring actioners, and for the purposes of this list, I thought it made the most sense to include the first in the series with the disclaimer that these thrillers are all consistently fist-pumping and fun, and if the whole hitman with amnesia angle works for you, then the whole series will be your bowl of cherries.
Director Doug Liman kickstarted this franchise, spawned from Robert Ludlum’s novel of the same name, with superstar Matt Damon in the role of Jason Bourne. Suffering from amnesia, Bourne recalls nothing from his previous life, his true identity is a mystery but a clandestine and bloody conspiracy is in the cards, and the CIA is certainly involved, too.
While the genre formula here is a familiar one, Damon’s charismatic performance and an all-star cast including Chris Cooper and Franka Potente help keep The Bourne Identity afloat, as does Liman’s knack for exciting action sequences in a handheld style that thankfully doesn’t require too much Dramamine. Suspense and humor make excellent bedfellows in this fast-moving action franchise starter.
10. John Wick (2014)
Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have a shit ton of fun with this pastiche-addled neo-noir thriller about retired hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves), mourning the death of his wife he is reluctantly pulled back into the fray after wronged by bad guys who kill his puppy, Daisy (how dare they!!) and swipe his vintage 1969 Mustang.
There’s an awful lot of awesome in John Wick, from its mad props to forebears like John Boorman, and John Woo –– maybe these are who Keanu’s hitman is named for? –– to its detailed underworld cosmology which memorably contains a hitman hotel straight out of some surreal fantasy world.
Alfie Allen’s arrogant bad guy is easy to despise, making the revenge all the more sweeter, and great performances from Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane also add immeasurably to the proceedings. John Wick is a revenge thriller chock-full of savoir-faire and imagination. Not to be missed.
9. Branded to Kill (1967)
Certainly Seijun Suzuki’s most famous film, this anarchic pisstake on B-movie platitudes is an artful escapade and one that has proved hugely influential on the likes of Park Chan-wook, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, and John Woo amongst others. This is the film that composer John Zorn referred to as “a cinematic masterpiece that transcends its genre.”
Branded to Kill stars Jo Shishido as Goro Hanada, the Number Three Killer. A feared and revered hitman with a fetish for sniffing boiling rice (yes, you read that correctly), whose failed attempt to kill a mark –– a butterfly lit upon his gun –– has now turned him into a target. A yakuza film like no other, elements of James Bond, slapstick, surrealism, and more erupt on the screen.
To quote the aforementioned Jarmusch (his hitman picture Ghost Dog is #7 on this very list), a champion and admirer of Suzuki’s, “[Branded to Kill is] probably the strangest and most perverse ‘hit man’ story in cinema.”