Assassin(s) (1997)

Assassin(s) first published by Film4

Summary: Mathieu Kassovitz follows up La Haine with a modern history of violence, in this contemporary parable of an ageing hitman and his young apprentice(s).

Review: In 1995, with only a few short films and the little known feature Métisse (1993) to his name, actor/director Mathieu Kassovitz suddenly arrived, taking viewers by surprise (and by the throat) with La Haine, a stylish yet blistering account of racial and social tensions in the boiling pot of contemporary Paris. As one of the defining films of the Nineties, La Haine would be a hard act to follow, as has been proved by the ever diminishing returns of Kassovitz’s subsequent The Crimson Rivers (2000) and Gothika (2003) – but before this retreat into derivative genre pieces, Kassovitz was to make one last stab at big-themed, bravura filmmaking, and the result was 1997’s Assassin(s), in which the director targets the very roots of male violence.

Max (Kassovitz) is a bored, unambitious and feckless twenty-something who spends his days as a welder and his nights as a small-time thief, and who still lives with his widowed mother (Danièle Lebrun) – but all that changes when he meets Mr Wagner (Michel Serrault), an elderly, deteriorating hitman who is looking for an apprentice to inherit the family trade. Under Wagner’s paternal tutelage, Max begins to take pride in himself and his work. When, however, Wagner’s traditional ‘craft’ is handed down too early by Max to the next generation, as embodied by troubled schoolboy Mehdi (Mehdi Benoufa), the ensuing tragedy encapsulates the state of a nation whose long-standing ills have become horrifically accelerated.  

On paper, Assassin(s) may sound like just another sensationalist action flick set in the supposedly slick world of the contract killer – think Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990) or Léon (1994) – but on screen Kassovitz’s film is if anything an unglamorous corrective to the usual ‘sexy’ image of cinematic murder, and has little action to speak of. Here, the assassins of the title cut pathetically shabby figures, and their hits are presented as a clumsy, messy, ugly business, whose horror is only accentuated by Pierre Aïm’s chillingly aloof camerawork. Kassovitz, after all, has bigger prey in his sights than the cool mechanics of killing. His aim is to hunt down the sources of sociopathy in the modern male psyche – what turns an “average” young man into a mercenary murderer, or an even younger boy into much, much worse.

Kassovitz’s answers are far from straightforward. The conspicuous presence of a TV set in almost every scene might be (and by some critics has been) taken to suggest that Assassin(s) glibly blames every societal problem on today’s 24-hour media – but in fact this is an oversimplistic interpretation of a film whose oldest character, like his father and his father’s father, learnt the art of conscience-free killing long before the ascendancy of television. In the background of Assassin(s) we see all manner of violent televisual images, but some of these (global news reports, sequences of merciless predation in nature) point to kinds of violence whose origins extend beyond the media through which they are conveyed, while the most pernicious programme of all is in fact an innocuous sit-com whose content has been transformed into an ultra-sadistic rape-and-murder show only within a character’s fantasy-fuelled imagination. 


So television may be an aggravating factor, but the film in no way suggests that it is the root of all evil. Watch carefully, and you will notice that Kassovitz is also scrutinising social exclusion, the prevalence of drugs, the absence of responsible father figures and rôle models, the open venality of public authorities and institutions, and the unprecedentedly rapid rate at which today’s children are expected to grow up – and while the film certainly shows TV-junkie youth going badly wrong, its final image is of an old man (himself a junkie of a different kind) turning his back on an atrocity to which he has in no small part contributed.

Indeed, Serrault’s Wagner is essential to the film’s moral complexity. He styles himself a wise elder, and is the only character to speak of responsibility, ethics, and honour – and yet his only loyalty is to his contracts, and he values other humans only according to the type of gun best suited to kill them or the price that their death will earn him. Even his heirless solitude, the quality that at first lends him a modicum of sympathy, is revealed in an elliptical aside to have resulted from his previous murder of his own son – an act of cold-hearted filicide which he will repeat, at least metaphorically, during the course of the film. With his line of politically incorrect jokes, his loquacious boasting, and his readiness to pontificate about the rest of the world’s immorality, Wagner has been endowed with an evil of the most banal variety – a character the likes of whom had not been seen since Man Bites Dog (1992). With a man like this as the film’s self-appointed moral core, there can be little hope for any younger disciples. 

Assassin(s) is not without its flaws – not least amongst which is a dead-men-do-tell-tales narrative structure in the film’s first two thirds that has been borrowed (with an extra twist) from Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave (1994) to little obvious purpose – but it is an immaculately framed, well-performed slow burn of a drama that poses urgent questions for our disconnected age. For as surely as violence comes on the heels of hatred, Kassovitz follows up La Haine with this challenging investigation into the evolving traditions of male sociopathy. Less cliched and more subtle than it first appears, Assassin(s) merits rediscovery by viewers fed up with more conventional hitman fare.

strap: Mathieu Kassovitz’s shabbily unglamourised hitman drama traces a legacy of male sociopathy in a world of accelerating alienation

Anton Bitel