In the real world, contract killing is far from the most ethical profession. But in movies? It's a common plot device that acts as the driving force for many action flicks and adrenaline-pumping thrillers.
Assassins and hitmen are given special assignments to eliminate specific targets, no questions asked. They may come off as cold or even psychotic, but they're still fundamentally people with desires, histories, and relationships.
And even if we'd never be friends with an assassin or hitman in real life, they often end up being characters whom we can root for.
Here are our picks for the best movies with assassins and hitmen who are just so compelling to watch on the big screen!
15. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
Directed by George Armitage
Starring John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Day Aykroyd
Action, Comedy, Crime (1h 47m)
An assassin coming to his high school reunion is like blending oil with water—but in this black comedy, they somehow blend together well.
Grosse Pointe Blank features John Cusack as assassin Martin Blank, who visits his hometown of Grosse Pointe to finish a mission. Luckily, his high school reunion takes place there, so he has the perfect cover.
Beneath his sly charm and dry humor, Cusack brings a kind of wit that draws us in even as we watch him jump from killing scenes to reunion antics. The dark humor is an oddly welcome source of comic relief.
14. Hanna (2011)
Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana
Action, Adventure, Drama (1h 51m)
In Hanna, Saoirse Ronan plays a young assassin who's raised by her father (played by Eric Bana) in the wilderness under tough and stealthy circumstances.
When father and daughter become targets of a CIA operation headed up by Marissa Wiegler (played by Cate Blanchett), Hanna swiftly readies what she's been conditioned and trained to do.
Hanna deviates from the usual assassin-thriller formula by using a fairy tale-like template: the father prepares his child against evil and the child vanquishes said evil. Here, director Joe Wright pulls no punches in the grit and the violence. Cold and sleek, Hanna truly kills.
13. Sicario (2015)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Action, Crime, Drama (2h 1m)
The CIA has always been a favorite subject for assassin movies that attempt to uncover the flaws in the system. Through the lens of Roger Deakins, Sicario highlights it all in full.
This thriller follows FBI agent Kate Macer (played by Emily Blunt) as she joins a task force in taking down a powerful Mexican drug cartel.
Slow tension, heavy action, and sharp cinematography define this Denis Villeneuve flick, but its crowning achievement is its character study of the assassin Gillick (played by Benicio del Toro), who goes through a compelling arc that messes with the mind.
12. The Killers (1964)
Directed by Don Siegel
Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes
Crime, Drama, Mystery (1h 33m)
If you're looking for a satire of thrillers that's based on a story by Ernest Hemingway, The Killers is for you.
This crime noir film follows two professional killers—Charlie (played by Lee Marvin) and Lee (played by Clu Gulager)—who, after a botched assignment, try to deduce the identity of the one who recruited them.
There's actually an older version of The Killers from 1946, but this one brings the best of Lee Marvin and his gritty persona that works so well here. The bits of dry wit and hitman satire never detract from Marvin's committed performance and action.
11. The Bourne Identity (2002)
Directed by Doug Liman
Starring Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper
Action, Mystery, Thriller (1h 59m)
The Bourne franchise took us on a winding journey about tracking down the amnesiac operative Jason Bourne (played by Matt Damon).
While The Bourne Ultimatum gave us the most intense action of the original trilogy, The Bourne Identity had the most compelling characterization for Jason Bourne himself.
In this first movie, Bourne—who wakes up and doesn't remember who he is—discovers his link to a past CIA operation, which causes panic in the organization as Bourne hunts them down.
Matt Damon makes a great first impression as the assassin on the run. Match that with slow-burn action, a cold atmosphere, and reliable support from Franka Potente, and you have a sharp spy film.
10. Collateral (2004)
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith
Action, Crime, Drama (2h)
In Collateral, Tom Cruise had the rare opportunity to play the antagonist—and in a Michael Mann thriller, no less.
This one follows cab driver Max (played by Jamie Foxx) who's coerced by his hitman passenger Vincent (played by Tom Cruise) to take him to several locations, where he inevitably takes down his targets.
Beneath the Los Angeles streetlights and frigid tone, we get a slow and tense thriller as we watch Cruise push the limits of his character in a most nerve-wracking way.
Under Michael Mann's direction and Paul Rubell's editing, Collateral became an unforgettable thriller with no escape.
9. Looper (2012)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt
Action, Drama, Sci-Fi (1h 59m)
Directed by famed genre-bender Rian Johnson, Looper blends two high-concept genres into one mind-blowing action-thriller flick.
It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a present-day contract killer who's tasked with eliminating victims who are sent back in time from the future. But one day, when his older self (played by Bruce Willis) appears, he stalls and struggles with the moral dilemma.
The young-person-meets-older-self trope is a common one in time-travel thrillers, but Johnson adds several layers to the story that turn the genre on its head. The action sequences are sharp, the characters are enthralling, and the final twist changes it all.
8. In Bruges (2008)
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes
Comedy, Crime, Drama (1h 47m)
From renowned writer Martin McDonagh comes In Bruges, a black comedy of errors about two contract killers.
While Ray (played by Colin Farrell) and Ken (played by Brendan Gleeson) hide out in the Belgian town of Bruges, they grow increasingly at odds with their boss Harry (played by Ralph Fiennes).
Martin McDonagh can find humor and absurdity in the most tragic of situations, and the resulting script is excellent with razor-sharp exchanges between Ray and Ken about morality and murder.
7. Léon: The Professional (1994)
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman
Action, Crime, Drama (1h 50m)
Léon: The Professional follows a hitman named Léon (played by Jean Reno) who lets the twelve-year-old Mathilda (played by Natalie Portman) stay with him after her family is killed by corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield (played by Gary Oldman).
As Léon and Mathilda form a bond, Mathilda also learns the tricks of Léon's trade as a contract killer.
While several scenes focus on Léon's assignments and his pursuits against the relentless Stansfield, the heart of the movie rests in his relationship with Mathilda.
6. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson
Crime, Drama (2h 34m)
Quentin Tarantino is a connoisseur of contract killer characters in his movies, from Reservoir Dogs to Django Unchained.
But he first struck gold with Pulp Fiction, in which nearly every character could be a hidden-in-plain-sight hitman roaming the sunny streets of Los Angeles.
The focus of the film is on Vincent Vega (played by John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (played by Samuel L. Jackson), two assassins assigned to recover a mysterious suitcase.
While Vega is chill and nonchalant, Winnfield is extremely passionate as to the liberty of his position. Both end up being iconic hitmen characters who still remain legendary to this day.
5. Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
Directed by Doug Liman
Starring Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Adam Brody
Action, Comedy, Crime (2h)
Mr. & Mrs. Smith may not have the sharpest script, the sleekest action, or the best legacy. So, why are we ranking it so highly? Because it raised the standard for spy movies carried by two charismatic leads.
In Mr. & Mrs. Smith, John Smith (played by Brad Pitt) and Jane Smith (played by Angelina Jolie) are an estranged married couple who are bored with their upper-class lifestyle.
More than that, unbeknownst to each other, they both lead secret double lives as assassins for competing agencies.
One day, the truth comes to light—when they're both tasked with killing each other. Cue sporadic action and thrills, complete with exquisite chemistry between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
4. La Femme Nikita (1990)
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Anne Parillaud, Marc Duret, Patrick Fontana
Action, Crime, Drama (1h 57m)
La Femme Nikita centers on the eponymous teen criminal Nikita (played by Anne Parillaud), who was sent to prison for killing cops but was actually contracted by the government as a professional assassin.
When a special mission goes awry, Nikita goes on the run to find out the true perpetrator.
Though this action flick lacks confidence as a cold-hearted thriller, it finds its groove in the titular assassin. Despite all her flaws, Nikita is a cool assassin who paved the way for more female-centric assassin movies, remakes, and TV spin-offs.
3. John Wick (2014)
Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
Starring Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen
Action, Crime, Thriller (1h 41m)
Before his Hollywood renaissance, Keanu Reeves had his share of thrillers in which he played conflicted operatives and cold assassins. Then John Wick came along in 2014 and skyrocketed him back to stardom—and for good reason!
Nobody really expected it to take off like it did, but John Wick nailed everything you'd expect from an assassin thriller: an active protagonist, a well-rounded cast, awesome action set pieces, and an intriguing universe of underground assassins operating within a secret society.
Truth is, John Wick revolutionized and reinvigorated the idea of the modern action thriller, taking the genre in a new direction while inspiring all kinds of modern action hits afterwards.
2. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox
Action, Crime, Thriller (1h 51m)
Another Quentin Tarantino flick here, showing that he'll never quite be done with assassin-centered stories. Of them all, both Kill Bill films stand out as his best, with Vol. 1 having an edge due to its much larger involvement of various assassin figures.
What makes the Kill Bill saga so compelling is the bloody journey of the Black Mamba (played by Uma Thurman) as she overcomes numerous hurdles with nothing but her fierce determination and her katana.
The whole thing is driven by her personal mission of vengeance against her former team of assassins, and it's oh so satisfying.
Like her codename, she strikes her foes hard with a relentless, remorseless venom that leaves them in her wake—and in Vol. 1, we get to witness the Black Mamba's most unforgettable kills and moments.
1. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin
Crime, Drama, Thriller (2h 2m)
To this day, No Country for Old Men by the Coen brothers remains the greatest movie about assassins and hitmen. Why? Because it doesn't sugarcoat, glorify, or exalt the profession.
On the contrary, No Country for Old Men takes that very aspect of genre escapism and makes it the cruelest element of its story.
Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country for Old Men follows a Vietnam War veteran (played by Josh Brolin) who's tracked down by hitman Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem), which prompts a local sheriff (played by Tommy Lee Jones) to investigate.
With brilliant direction by the Coens, this thriller leaves no room for comfort—and that's mainly due to Bardem's performance, who elevates this fictional hitman into a living, breathing nightmare.
No Country for Old Men is a neo-Western in which no one wins but Chigurh's malice and cynicism. He's the most frightening hitman in cinema history, bar none.