Was John Hurt ever young? Surely he must’ve been, but watching him stalk through Stephen Frears’ The Hit, it’s easy to imagine otherwise. With his starving lizard’s face and a body held together by sweat and cheap suits, he moves through Spain like a corpse too awkward to die. Where other movies have used Hurt’s sallow vulnerability to earn the audience’s trust, here he’s largely alien, kept at a distance until the film’s final third. With Hurt held in contrast against Terrence Stamp’s beatific calm, the two seem to be standing on opposite sides of a chasm, with both more interested than one would expect in finding a way across. It creates an eerie balance: one man bringing death, another open to it, but neither certain of what comes next.
Stamp plays a thief who turns in his fellows for a shot at a new life. After a brief prologue where Stamp gives his testimony in court, the movie jumps 10 years down the line, with the reformed man living a peaceful life in southern Spain. But time has a way of catching up with turncoats, and one day Stamp finds himself in the hands of an unsavory hitman, played by Hurt, with Tim Roth, as Hurt's impetuous assistant. The two drag Stamp in the direction of Paris, and along the way they find an unwilling companion in Laura del Sol, a beautiful blank slate who throws Hurt off his game. Even more confusing is Stamp’s apparent lack of concern about his oncoming fate; there’s usually more begging involved, not smiling. With Roth threatening mutiny, it’s hard to stay professional.
The Hit is as much a philosophical travelogue as it is a crime drama. As Hurt and his hostages move through the countryside, the scenery changes from city to desert to verdant forest, not so much commenting on the action as contextualizing it. The performances, including a cameo from Fernando Rey as a dogged detective, are all solid, and Frears, best known at that point for television dramas, brings a naturalist calm to both the conversations and the violence that punctuates them. The script by Peter Prince occasionally errs too much on the side of opacity, but the few revelations that do come are deftly handled. It’s a meditation on death, and in the end, it belongs to Hurt. He doesn’t speak often, but when he does, it’s in a voice that suspects just how close it is to silence.
Key features: The usual choice collection from Criterion, including an informative commentary from Frears, Hurt, Roth and others, and a television interview with Stamp.