Monday, February 2, 2009

The Last Hitman & Shadowboxer

There may be little hope of getting producers and directors to do original stuff when copying or tweeking previous successful stuff works so well. Last night I watched The Last Hitman, a 2008 movie starring Joe Mantegna. There were other actors, but Mantegna was the only big name. I liked the movie. Harry Tremayne (Mantegna) is a hitman who discovers he has a malignant brain tumor. He notices it when he is doing a hit and misses. He never misses, so he goes to the doctor who tells him of his problem. His time is limited. He won’t admit vulnerability to the people who ordered the hit, so they think he “went over to the other side” and order a hit on him. The hitman sent to do Harry is Billy Rosco (played by Romano Orzari). He fails and Harry gets the drop on him. Harry and his daughter, Racquel Tremayne (played by Elizabeth Whitmere) had previously been talking about Harry taking on an assistant, and Harry, on the spur of the moment, offers Billy the job.

Billy Rosco had only used shotguns in drive-bys to do his hits; so Harry teaches him how to shoot rifles with sniping accuracy. All the while, Harry’s daughter, Racquel, is suspicious and jealous of Billy whom Harry has been treating like a son. Once Billy is up to speed, he and Harry begin going after whoever it was who put a hit on Harry. Once the opposition is dispensed with, Harry asks Billy to do him. He doesn’t want to become weaker and weaker from the cancer and end up in a pitiful state in a hospital. He would rather go out on top by having Billy shoot him; which Billy does. And which Racquel understands and accepts. Racquel’s boyfriend is killed in the last shootout; so the movie ends with Racquel and Billy going off, like sister and brother, to carry on as a hit-team.

I must confess that it wasn’t until after I had watched the movie and the commentary that I thought to myself, “Hey, wait a minute.” They presented it as an original effort, created out of whole cloth. It was the scene in which Billy shoots Harry that reminded me of Shadowboxer.

In Shadowboxer, Cuba Gooding and Helen Mirren (two stars in this movie) as Mikey and Rose are a hit team. In this one Rose gets the illness and has Mikey shoot her. At the end Mikey and Vicki (not a hitter but a hitee) go off as a hit-team. Shadowboxer is a bit “sicker” because of the sexual relation between Mikey and Rose (who functioned as his step-mom for much of his life). Also, Mikey just can’t make it emotionally by himself. He has to have a woman telling him what to do. Vicki, rather than Rose’s illness is the reason hitmen were sent after them. Vicki’s mob-boss husband believed she may have had an affair; so he puts out a hit on her. She is pregnant and her water breaks while Rose is pointing a pistol at her. Rose can’t bear to shoot her in that condition; so she and Mikey rescue her instead. Vicki is a smart girl and knows her only hope is to stick with Rose and Mikey (also she becomes attracted to Mikey); which she does with enthusiasm. She is fully in Rose’s role at the end of the movie, just as Billy is in Harry’s role at the end of The Last Hitman.

Are the two movies different enough so that the director of The Last Hitman can imply that his was an original effort? Perhaps by Hollywood standards, I don’t know. But if he really wanted it to seem original, why have Billy put Harry out of his misery? That was a “dead” give-away (pun intended). Of course it may be that Shadowboxer was itself a “takeoff” from some earlier movie. That in itself might provide justification for not owning up to a debt to Shadowboxer.

The hitman in each movie has an “edge” over his adversaries that his adversaries don’t know about. In the case of Mikey it is his shadowboxing. He has skills his employers aren’t aware of, and In the “shootout” scene, he is able to gain the initiative by knocking down the people holding him, allowing him to get a gun. In the case of The Last Hitman, it is Harry’s daughter. She is known merely as Harry’s driver. No one knows she is a superb shot. She has never done any hits herself, but she is fully capable as she proves by shooting down the bad guys who have the drop on Billy and Harry.

Keeping with the “sickness” theme of Shadowboxer, Vicki’s son, a little boy by the time the movie ends, performs the final killing in the shoot-out. And as they drive away, Mikey and Vicki discuss the likelihood that more hitmen will come after them. The little boy in the back seat says, “then we’ll kill them all.” Mikey has a worried expression on his face as he watches the little boy from the rear-view mirror as the movie ends. As an “artistic success” I would rate Shadowboxer higher than The Last Hitman, but the latter movie was more fun to watch. All the people killed were bad guys. This was true of The Last Hitman as well, but the latter described a more wholesome family situation (compared to Shadowboxer). The Last Histman could have been Western, except that in a Western, Billy probably would have left a six-shooter for Harry to use to kill himself.


Perhaps the most interesting question is why we have so many movies about hitmen. Movies about hitmen and serial killers are very popular in our society. Why is that? The Serial-Killer question seems easier to answer. Perhaps they began with Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Such movies involve very difficult, seemingly motiveless crimes, that the clever detective, the main character in the story, must solve. So in these movies you identity with the detective fighting evil, not the evil serial killer. But in the Hitmen movies, you have to identify in some way with the hitmen. I have made no study of these movies and can only bring two others to mind, one with Alan Ladd, who played Phillip Raven in This Gun for Hire) in which he likes cats and small kids but nevertheless comes to the bad end which he thinks he deserves, and another with Timothy Olyphant (Hitman) in which he (patterned after a comic-book hero) displays a heart of gold by giving the girl who helped him a vineyard and then shooting the hitman who was sent against her.

Timothy Olyphant’s movie seems to owe something to the TV series, Dark Angel. Olyphant’s character, “Agent 47”, was raised much as Jessica Alba’s “Max” was in Dark Angel. They are more like superheroes than ordinary bad-guy hit-people. . . . unless Dark Angel was patterned after the Hitman comic book . . .

1 comment:

Lawrence Helm said...

There is an interesting response to this post by the director of "The Last Hitman" at

Lawrence Helm