Reviewed by: Steve Harwood

What does a professional hitman do when it’s time to retire?

Mr Wagner (Michel Serrault), the ageing protagonist of Mathieu Kassovitz’s Assassin(s), decides to train a young protégé to become his successor. Wagner’s father taught him everything he knew, as his father did before him, but without any children of his own, he identifies local thief Max (Kassovitz) as someone he can pass on his expertise to. Throwing his new charge straight in at the deep end, Wagner breaks into the home of a neighbour and forces Max to shoot him dead in a shocking early scene that sets out the stall for what is to follow.

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Wagner begins to teach Max the techniques of a contract killer; which weapon should be used on which type of target, planning a hit, how to make the crucial final shot. He also expounds on the ethics of the job; how it’s not just about the money, but morals are involved, too. According to Wagner, it is the politicians, the media and the global corporations who are the true assassins; they are all, in their own way, killing society anyway, so why should he have a guilty conscience?

Essentially though, the central message of the film is wholly predictable: that violence in the media, juxtaposed alongside mindless television shows and adverting jingles, contributes towards crime in today’s society. In nearly every scene, a character is either watching television, or we can hear one blaring out in the background. Later, the point is hammered home further when a character sits and plays a violent video game; his transfixed expression showing no emotion as he pulls the trigger again and again.

Overall, the film is dark and brooding, suitably matching its subject matter. Whenever violence is shown, it is graphic and extreme, but in between these sequences the pace slows noticeably, until a dramatic change of direction two-thirds of the way through. Even this, though, only further supports Kassovitz’s premise that desensitisation to violent images in the media leads to real outbreaks of violence in society.

On a technical level, Assassin(s) is excellent, with Pierre Aim’s perfectly judged camerawork a particular highlight. Several techniques are reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s work, especially a 360-degree pan around Wagner’s apartment and a split-diopter shot in a busy café. The sound design and score by Carter Burwell are effective too, but ultimately it is Kassovitz’s heavy-handed approach that lets the film down.

Reviewed on: 23 Sep 2008
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A hitman decides to train up a successor.
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Director: Mathieu Kassovitz

Writer: Nicolas Boukhrief, Mathieu Kassovitz

Starring: Michel Serrault, Mathieu Kassovitz, Mehdi Benoufa, Robert Gendreu, Danièle Lebrun, François Levantal, Karim Belkhadra, Roland Marchisio, Félicité Wouassi, Nicolas Boukhrief

Year: 1997

Runtime: 128 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France


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