Known simply as Nikita in France, this killer thriller is second only to Luc Besson’s other assassin tale, Leon. Anne Parillaud is all sorts of crazy sexy cool as la femme in question, a teenage junkie who finds herself in deep shit after a pharmacy robbery goes straight to hell; soon, she’s officially dead herself and reinvented by the Directorate-General for External Security (that’s French for “super-cool secret government agency”) as a sleeper assassin — and a damn good one, at that. Besson’s at the top of his game here, delivering a stylish and intense fable that’s aged remarkably well; this is Parillaud’s show all the way, though she gets excellent support from Tcheky Karyo as her handler, Jeanne Moreau as one of her trainers and Jean-Hugues Anglade as the new boyfriend who has absolutely no idea that his ladylove kills dudes for a living. Future Leon star Jean Reno appears in the third act as another ruthless and deadly “Cleaner.”
If you only know this gripping tale via the American remake starring Nicolas Cage, then we are truly, deeply sorry. Despite both films being directed by the same guys (the Pang Brothers), the 2008 remake is somehow rather wretched, whereas the 1999 Korean original is frickin’ sweet as all get-out. Kong (Pawalit Mongkolpisit) is a deaf-mute whose disability inspired the many childhood taunts that have helped shape the angry young man we know today — an angry young man whose lack of auditory distractions helps him become a particularly good shooter. Soon, Kong is an assassin-for-hire, pulling off many deadly and brutal jobs. His is a dark and empty life — though might the pretty pharmacist he meets after he gets a cold upon returning from business in Hong Kong help turn things around? A unique and melancholy tale, Bangkok Dangerous jumpstarted the Pang Brothers’ career — they would later go on to direct several horror films, including The Eye and its two sequels as well as the underrated The Messengers, which stars Kristen Stewart as a farmgirl who starts seein’ ghosts.
This little-known thriller from director Stephen Frears is fueled by the stellar performances of its amazing cast, including a young and eager Tim Roth as an excitable assassin teamed up with the world-weary (but still extremely dangerous) John Hurt. Terrence Stamp plays a London gangster who informed on his associates in exchange for an easy, quiet and until now secret life in Spain; Roth and Hurt come a’callin’ to whack the rat, though their mission ends up becoming complicated by the sudden appearance (and interference) of an Austrailian mobster (Bill Hunter) and his Spanish moll (Laura de Sol). Suffice to say that nothing plays out the way you think it will in this tricky tale — and you definitely won’t see that doozy of an ending coming. Ultimately, death is, indeed, inevitable for us all — it’s just more inevitable for some. Oddly enough, Joe Strummer of The Clash was originally considered for Roth’s part — and it was he who ended up recommending Roth to take his place.
Michael Keaton, a man who we really don’t see enough of these days, made his directorial debut with this sad, quietly intense Christmas tale about the unlikely friendship between a sickly hit man (Keaton) and a kindly office worker (Kelly MacDonald, still breaking hearts with her unrelenting cuteness, as she’s been doing since Trainspotting). The Merry Gentleman doesn’t have much of a story, and it might be just a little too heavy-handed with all of the symbolism (oh, that blasted hat!), but Keaton’s skilled and assured emphasis on tone, atmosphere and character makes for a fascinating, hypnotic and genuinely satisfying film experience. This is a holiday movie for people who prefer their celebrations a little more non-traditional; in fact, The Merry Gentleman is the second-best Michael Keaton Christmas movie, following the equally melancholy and oddly beautiful Batman Returns, of course.
A strange and deeply romantic thriller, Bulletproof Heart is one of the most obscure modern film noir efforts out there — and actually one of the best. Anthony LaPaglia plays a hit man in the middle of an existential crisis; instead of giving him his requested time off, his mobster boss (Peter Boyle) gives him another target: the sultry Fiona (Mimi Rogers), a smoldering femme fatale (with a few screws loose) who owes money to the mob and has seemingly accepted her fate as a doomed woman. What follows is a passionate and unpredicatable love affair that only fuels the hit man’s existential panic — and puts both of their lives in jeopardy. Bulletproof Heart (aka Killer) is sometimes just too damn weird for its own good, breaking its spell with an occasional sense of goofy self-consciousness, but it always manages to pull you back into its sticky, perplexing web. Rogers, the first ex-Mrs. Tom Cruise, is especially good as a woman with too many secrets.