Friday, October 3, 2014

Film Review: THE HITMAN (1991, Aaron Norris)

Stars: 3.5 of 5.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Tag-line: "He's so far undercover, he may never get back."
Notable Cast or Crew:  Chuck Norris (DELTA FORCE, DELTA FORCE 2: THE COLUMBIAN CONNECTION), Michael Parks (FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, DEATH WISH 5, KILL BILL, TWIN PEAKS), Al Waxman (CAGNEY AND LACEY, HEAVY METAL), Alberta Watson (THE SWEET HEREAFTER, POWER PLAY), William B. Davis (THE X-FILES, AIRWOLF), Ken Pogue (CHAINDANCE, THE DEAD ZONE), James Purcell (DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN), Salim Grant (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, GHOST DAD).  Co-written and produced by Don Carmody (producer on Cronenberg's SHIVERS and RABID, WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S II, CHICAGO).   Co-produced by André Link (SNAKE EATER, MEATBALLS, MY BLOODY VALENTINE).
Best One-liner:  "You!  Fuck!  Motherfuck!"  or perhaps "He's gonna cut off your balls and stick 'em up your ass!" or perhaps "It's your job to carve him a new asshole, right between the fuckin' eyes!" or perhaps "Don't come in my house and shit on my furniture!"

THE HITMAN is a post-Golan Cannon Film originally intended as a Charles Bronson vehicle.  After a labyrinthine pre-preduction period, however, it ended up as an atypically dark Chuck Norris flick.  Fine by me.  It has a strange kind of RED HARVEST/YOJIMBO/A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS vibe to it, with "good-guy" Norris masquerading as a mobster in order to play different criminal factions against one another.  So as not to blow his cover, he must engage in all sorts of morally reprehensible behavior.  Subsequently, it doesn't feel like a dose of the "All-American Chuck" like we see in DELTA FORCE, and definitely it would have made more sense as a Bronson vehicle, or even a Steven Segal one.  The picture's dark, too, and I mean literally dark.  Most of it takes place at night, and it has an overwhelming shadowy feeling, with the fog machines working double overtime.  Who knew Seattle (I mean Vancouver, where they actually filmed most of this) was so spooky?

Anyway, all this gritty atmosphere is meant to disguise the film's frequent nonsensicality– it's made up almost entirely of scenes with no anchor, action governed by motivations we barely understand, and a population of characters we don't know who are floating in and out of the proceedings with seemingly no rhyme or reason.

Yes, THE HITMAN's a strange, confusing, and awkwardly disquieting film.  Obviously, those are three of my favorite attributes in cinema, and so here are the six strangest and most disquieting facets of the trash-terpiece that is THE HITMAN:

#1.  Michael Parks.

As Chuck's former partner who betrays him and leaves him for dead, character acting legend Parks is the ostensible antagonist of the film.  I can't say this often enough: gosh gad-diddly goddamn, Michael Parks is amazing.  He's always so powerfully in the moment, he can give weight and pathos to drinking coffee.  I mean, look at him:

Upon seeing THE HITMAN, it now occurs to me that he must always be improvising his own dialogue.  After seeing him in the Tarantino and Rodriguez cycle (KILL BILL, PLANET TERROR, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, DJANGO UNCHAINED), I assumed that they had settled on the folksy, foul-mouthed curmudgeon he plays and kept it consistent for aesthetic purposes– but now I realize they must simply turn him loose to do his own thing.  There's no way that a writer for Cannon Films came up with "My dick's like a cold stack of buttons" or "I'm so horny I could fuck mud" or "Funny as a dead baby" or "You can take it any way you fuckin' like, jackoff!" or his constant use of expressions like "fuckin' the dog" and "numbnuts."  He spits all the time, too, as if he's spewing tobacco juice nonstop, and somehow it's the perfect punctuation for each ridiculous and colorful bit of vulgarity.

The film begins with a buddy-cop style exchange between him and Norris where his acting so outshines his scene partner that it becomes essential to turn his character evil just to get him offscreen and keep him from embarrassing Chuck too badly.  (See also:  DELTA FORCE II: THE COLUMBIAN CONNECTION, in regard to the acting brilliance of Billy Drago.)

Later, there's a mind-blowing dream sequence, whereupon Chuck Norris imagines he's being shot by Michael Parks, but then wakes up, safe and sound, napping away in his Yuppie-Western chic bedroom.

I have slightly altered and edited this remarkable scene into a nearly endless, hypnotic clip I have entitled "Chuck Norris vs. Michael Parks Dream Loop."
Also, speaking of dreams, could this random blue velvet curtain be a reference to his work with David Lynch on TWIN PEAKS?

I'm probably reading too much into that one.


#2.  Cigarette-Smokin' Doc.
After Parks shoots Norris, he's declared clinically dead and undergoes a magical resurrection, replete with Christian imagery,

and is reborn as an even bigger badass with a rockin', always moist mullet.

Note moisture.

Upon waking, Chuck's physician is played by William B. Davis, a.k.a., "The Cigarette-Smoking Man."

These events seem pretty inexplicable to me... perhaps we should open... an X-FILE?  Drop a dime and get Scully and Mulder on the horn, pronto!


#3.  Religious tolerance?  Nah.
There's an extremely out-of-place torture scene that feels like something out of HELLRAISER flick

that also involves force-feeding pork products to a Muslim (oh, Cannon Films– always keeping it klassy).  As if this wasn't offensive enough, later Chuck wanders into a Middle Eastern restaurant, insults the very concept of couscous, 
and in response to the proclamation, "Allah will protect us," shouts "Then this shouldn't hurt!" before kicking everyone in the face.  Hoo boy.

#4.  Racial tolerance?  Kind of, but the creepy kind.

So Chuck meets a black neighbor boy and takes him under his wing (initially, without his mother's knowledge), begins calling him "Tiger," gives him a key to his apartment, and promises to build model airplanes.  Meanwhile, he's continuing to work undercover as a mob enforcer, which means that there are people even more unsavory than Chuck hanging around all the time, too.  This is all pretty creepy, but it gets weirder.

He's always offering the kid "juice" to drink, and the kid declines because he's heard of roofies, and then Chuck offers the juice again and again and again.

"C'mon, just a sip."  –"Hey, man, I said 'no' once already!"  

The kid reveals that racist bullies are giving him a hard time at school, so Chuck starts training him in martial arts and inappropriate touching

and when the kid is ready, he says "When I call you Tiger now, I'm gonna mean it!"
Furthermore, he delivers an anti-racist pep talk about being on the receiving end of reverse racism from some mean, mean Native Americans, which I later found out was an autobiographical anecdote inserted in the film by Chuck himself.  Fresh with the knowledge that Chuck overcame reverse racism through self-righteous punching, the kid defeats the bully, the poor man's redneck Edward Furlong,

and then Chuck defeats the bully's dad in a clip I have entitled "Chuck Norris Tackles Racism."
 Dig that slappy bass!


#5.  Evolution!
Chuck ordinarily wouldn't touch evolution with a forty-cubit pole, but here it's all over the place!

Meeting his police handler in the dolphin wing of an aquarium, he incorrectly surmises "Did you know there was a time that they walked on land?"  WHAT?!   Seriously.  Where is this coming from?  Then he strokes the glass of the dolphin tank, muttering "Yeah, yeah, baby, yeah, you're beautiful..." in what may be the creepiest line reading in the history of cinema.  Don't believe me?  See for yourself:
And how'd you like that bit at the end of the clip, there?  He's meeting with a French mobster who calls his boss an "Oily anthropoid," prompting Chuck to declare that he's not here "to discuss evolution."  Oh, but he is!  

(It must also be noted that "oily anthropoid" is one of the greatest, most head-scratching insults to come out of the Cannon canon, on par with anything from MURPHY'S LAW.)


#6.  The Final Showdown.
It doesn't disappoint.  Michael Parks brings the art of acting, and Chuck Norris brings the art of kicking.  And I think that one specific element of the finale may have even inspired the fate of the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT.

Bon appetit.  Three and a half stars, ya oily anthropoids!

–Sean Gill

P.S.– Halloween schtuff coming soon!

4 comments:

Mike Bradley said...

Oh dear Lord this looks...kind of amazing. I've surprisingly found it hard to get into Norris's films, even though everything about them seems like it should be right up my alley. I did kinda dig "Code of Silence," though, which made me realize that the same two guys have played Chicago cops not only in that film, but also in Seagal's "Above the Law," and alongside Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive." Talk about a trifecta of cinematic titans! Anyway, thanks for this as always, and let me give you an off-topic heads-up. Watched a film called "Black Eagle" the other day. Made in 1988, starring a couple of actors you may have heard of...a certain Sho Kosugi AND Jean-Claude Van Damme! And, I have to say, regrettably, a complete and utter letdown. I mean, how could the NAMES among NAMES not pull this off? Dull, slow, weirdly self-serious, using some kind of awful score they must have taken out of the public domain...it was just all so, so bad. Kosugi is a CIA agent trying to recover a lost laser device from the Russians, and Van Damme is the main Russian guy's enforcer/henchman(!). I realize it didn't have the Cannon stamp of approval, but jeez, even the fights were awful. I never thought I'd say this about a Kosugi/Van Damme film, but I can't recommend it at all. Van Damme's splits game was on point though; he must have broken out the full split about a dozen times in this thing. But that was not enough to save it!

Sean Gill said...

Mike,
For the the cheesy-action-luvin' cineaste who's having trouble getting into Chuck Norris, I think I'd recommend DELTA FORCE 1 and/or 2, and maybe HELLBOUND or LONE WOLF MCQUADE, but that's just me.

BLACK EAGLE's been on the list for a while, so I'm sad to hear it's such a letdown, given the involvement of those two titans. Morbid curiosity means I'll probably end up seeing it anyway at some point, though thanks for the heads up!

John Guedes said...

"...but now I realize they must simply turn him loose to do his own thing."

But Sean, Michael Parks has been turned loose and that movie is Kevin Smith's TUSK. Probably the craziest, most unhinged performance we will ever see from Parks.

Sean Gill said...

John,

I was entertaining the idea of seeing TUSK at the movies for Parks alone, but consigned myself to waiting for DVD. The trailer certainly looked as if Parks is out of control in all the best ways.