Some of the greatest delights in a lifetime of movie-going have come from what were considered "small" films, and "The Hit" (opening Friday at the Cineplex) is unequivocally one of those.
Actually, small has come to have a deprecatory tone, but such films are exactly as long as they need to be, and perfectly formed. From "Songwriter" all the way back to "The Small Back Room" (and that was 1949), from "Reuben, Reuben" to "Cutter's Way," these are the films that linger longest--sleeve-tuggers, the sort of movie you feel impelled to tell friends about.
The premise in "The Hit" is hardly new: The gang member-turned-informer whose day of reckoning finally comes. However, the telling is all, and you aren't five minutes into the film before it is clear that British director Stephen Frears ("Gumshoe") has a fine, strong personal style--a mixture of visual audacity and a lovely sensitivity with his actors.
He begins with a brilliant cast, in top form. Terence Stamp, thinner now, gray-haired, his face even more attractive with its unquestioned mileage than it was when he was the angelic Billy Budd, is Willie Parker. We see Willie before and after his infamous testimony, and he undergoes a marked change--growing from flashy hood to a man at peace with the world, and at peace even with what he knows is inevitable.
The man who comes to pick up Willie in his tranquil Spanish village and take him to Paris and a particularly nasty retribution is Braddock (John Hurt)--smart, quiet, efficient and emotionless. He's the exact opposite of his partner, Myron (Tim Roth), a young, punk bully eternally out of his depth, who hasn't passed a useful thought through his small brain in a decade or so.
We think we know the equation instantly: How long will it take one bright, unarmed criminal to outwit two smart-to-stupid ones? Right. And not right. Frears, with novelist-screenwriter Peter Prince, turns it into something more: unmatched suspense with the inexorability of myth, a beautiful (and bloody) rumination upon living and dying.
The plot is further complicated when Braddock--with the Spanish police, headed by Fernando Rey, in dogged pursuit--stops in Madrid to pick up a fresh car. Unexpectedly occupying the "safe" apartment is another gangster, the sagging, pitiful, middle-aged Harry ("Gallipoli's" Bill Hunter, peerless in this small, memorable role), and Harry's very young and very shrewd girlfriend, Maggie (Laura del Sol, Carlos Saura's flamenco Carmen).
Braddock is soon carrying far more people than he can control. It's the fox, the geese and the grain, in grim earnest. What emerges is the distillation of each personality: Willie maintains a Zen-like and watchful calm, punctuated by dry humor. The blustering Myron becomes even more of a hollow bully. Maggie, weaponless, is nevertheless possessed of an epic will to survive--she is the life force itself. And as Braddock's acts of violence escalate, Hurt, with his open-mouthed Mask of Tragedy grimace, looks more and more forbidding.
The Spanish backgrounds are a comment of their own: Stamp's book-filled, tranquil little whitewashed house; the pathetic ostentation of a gang-owned high-rise in Madrid; a primeval countryside setting--ferns and a waterfall that Rousseau might have painted--for an encounter between the film's two most evenly matched characters, Willie and Braddock.
Against these locations, and with Paco de Lucia's brooding flamenco music in the background, Frears tightens up the tension; the camera's movements around that terrace in Madrid are exquisitely ominous--that's the work of Mike Molloy ("The Shout"). And Frears' trick of pulling his camera's-eye view far, far above the most violent confrontations depersonalizes them and gives them a sense of universality.
You might want to know a few things the film doesn't trouble with: where the spark came from that changed the early Willie into the late Willie, or the survival trick of the film's last character that allows for one final scene against all common sense--and medical possibility. Dramatic license is stretched pretty thin here.
But these are small quibbles. "The Hit" is something special: thoughtful, perfectly performed and carrying the clear stamp of an extremely interesting director. (It also carries the mark of what is becoming one of the more interesting releasing organizations: Island Alive, who made "Choose Me" and released "El Norte," "Koyaanisqatsi" and "A Private Function.")
An Island Alive release. Producer Jeremy Thomas. Director Stephen Frears. Screenplay Peter Prince. Camera Mike Molloy. Editor Mick Audsley. Music Paco de Lucia, title music Eric Clapton. Production design Andrew Sanders. Costumes Marit Allen. Sound Paul Le Mare. With Terence Stamp, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Laura del Sol, Bill Hunter, Fernando Rey.
MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.