Cannonvember #6 The Hitman (1992)
Well, folks, we’ve reached another pointless milestone here at Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place. A while back I decided that I would write about every film in the big Cannon box set, despite half of them being vehicles for snoozy dad jeans and rocket launcher enthusiast Chuck Norris. And, because I am a glutton for punishment, I was so underwhelmed by Norris that I figured I would rope him into Control Nathan Rabin and give Patreon donors a choice between Sidekicks, a bait-and-switch Karate Kid knockoff pairing Norris with the late Jonathan Brandis, or Top Dog, which paired Norris with the titular crime-solving pooch.
Y’all chose Sidekicks, which I dutifully saw and wrote about, which makes The Hitman the sixth and final motion picture of Cannontober/Cannonvember/possibly Cannoncember or even Cannonuary, which doubles of course as Chucktober/Chuckvember/possibly Chuckcember or Chuckuary, after Missing in Action, Invasion USA, Hellbound, Delta Force and Sidekicks.
What could have possibly driven me to pursue such a dumb, pointless challenge? It wasn’t for the money. And it wasn’t for the fame. It wasn't in hopes that Norris would be so flattered he’d invite me to his ranch in Montana to try on different karate jeans and shoot rocket launchers together. And I definitely did not do it for the bikini babes.
No, I did it so that at the end of this explosion and machine-gun-fire filled road I could stand tall in the knowledge that I had set a pointless goal for myself and then achieved it. Let it never be said that I am afraid to follow a passion project all the way to the weary end.
The sixth and final movie of my current Chuck Norris spree casts Norris as Cliff Garret (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) a tough cop with a Sam Elliott-worthy mustache but no beard. When a drug deal goes awry, Cliff ends up pumped full of bullet holes by corrupt cop Ronny “Del” Delany (Michael Parks).
Ronny’s bullets nearly kill Cliff but when he survives against impossible odds his superiors decide to take advantage of the widespread belief that Cliff died in the line of duty to give him a new undercover assignment as Danny Grogan, a lethal enforcer of Italian mob boss Marco Luganni (Al Waxman).
How committed is Cliff to maintaining his sinister new identity? I hope you’re sitting down, because throughout The Hitman never wears a single all-American denim ensemble, he died his mullet black and prefers shapeless black ensembles to his trademark blue jeans. As far as I recollect, Norris doesn’t even wield a single rocket launcher and while he does blow someone up at the end (this is Cannon, not Merchant-Ivory), he goes the old school Wile. E. Coyote route and uses dynamite.
Undercover Cliff soon finds himself caught in the middle of a gang war pitting Italians against French Canadians and Iranians whose Muslim heritage is continually evoked and not, as you might imagine, in a culturally respectful way.
Meanwhile, in a subplot that presages Sidekicks (which would come out the following year and feature, improbably enough, both a Hitman poster proudly displayed in the hero's bedroom and a fantasy sequence very directly inspired by The Hitman featuring our teen hero in clothes inspired by Cliff's The Man in Black goth-wear here), loner Cliff befriends light-skinned African-American neighborhood boy Tim Murphy (Salim Grant) and single-handedly saves this poor, unfortunate minority’s life, White Savior Style.
Tim and his mother, who works three jobs yet still can hardly afford to pay the rent, are defined by their race to a large extent but also by their neediness, poverty and desperation, which the movie depicts as being interchangeable with their race. Cliff shows his worshipful young protege how to fight and defend himself and when a teenaged bully's dad calls Tim a racist epithet, Cliff punches him right in the fucking face.
Tim is called a variety of racial epithets here, including such anachronistic slabs of hate as “coon” and “spear-chucker” and since Chuck Norris is for the most part a sexless loner, Tim ends up being the loved one in peril Cliff has to save in the film’s climax, and then just barely. Between teaching Tim to fight, beating up the father of one of his bullies and avenging the man who tried to kill Tim, Cliff is a heck of a guy, and the best, most saintly friend an impoverished minority could possibly have, and that’s before he closes the film by giving Tim’s overworked, salt-of-the-earth mother a shoebox full of cash to set her up for life.
The ridiculously melodramatic Tim subplot feels like a sentimental dry run for Sidekicks, albeit a Sidekicks that genuinely featured Norris as the star and mentor figure, and didn’t represent a massive bait and switch where audiences were promised a Chuck Norris vehicle and received a movie that he’s in for about ten minutes.
Parks, who died recently at 77 following an incredible late-period career resurgence that found him delivering Oscar-worthy performances in Kevin Smith movies like Red State and Tusk, was one of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith’s favorite actors. He was a TV star and a country musician who did some of his finest work in pieces of shit like The Hitman. Parks is absolutely electrifying in The Hitman’s opening.
Parks brings so much life and history to the character with next to nothing to work with. We intrinsically believe Parks even in the midst of such low-rent genre hogwash. There’s an effortless authenticity to his performances no matter how half-assed the project. Parks is only in the movie for about seven minutes before he nearly kills our hero but those seven minutes tower over the rest of the film’s first two acts.
Parks is so good he makes everyone around him better, including Norris, who only ever seems like an actor when he’s onscreen with Parks. He makes the film better, and darker, and more convincing but then he disappears for the next seventy minutes, only to reappear towards the very end as a ghost from Cliff’s past intent on eliminating his future.
When Ronny “Del” Delany tracks down Cliff, he gives him twelve hours to leave town before he goes after him, which seems mighty sporting and honorable for someone who has already attempted to murder our hero, and would unsuccessfully attempt to murder Cliff’s sidekick Tim as well.
In moments like this The Hitman feels like an urban western. Elsewhere, director Aaron Norris’ idea of “sultry” and “dark” entails filling the erotic-thriller-ready score with the moodiest saxophone solos known to man. The Hitman lives up to the brown paper bag genericness of its title.
At one point Cliff, still in deep cover as a glowering, emotionless sociopath on the wrong side of the law, goes down on the film’s only female character outside of Tim’s mother, a woman of mystery played by Alberta Watson, just five years from her career-defining role as the mother in Spanking the Monkey.
The filmmakers cut away almost as soon as anything sexual begins to happen, because nobody, but nobody, needs to see a Chuck Norris sex scene. He’s a perfectly decent-looking man but I have even less interest in seeing him get his fuck on than I imagine his brother/director does. Heck, I’d imagine that compared to feigning sexual attraction to Chuck Norris, having a sex scene with an actor playing your son, as Watson did in Spanking the Monkey, would be a relative breeze (no pun intended!).
Speaking of actual actors, Parks returns for The Hitman’s climax and against all odds, it starts to feel like an actual movie again. While Norris seems to have left his bazookas and rocket launchers and at home for this one, this is a Cannon movie so it’s not enough for our hero to beat the bad guy up, or to kill him. No, in order to achieve real, Cannon justice Cliff somehow manages to get arch-nemesis tied to a chair dangling out a window. That’s still not enough for him, however, so he disobeys his bosses’ order to bring Ronny “Del” Delany in alive and instead petulantly blows him up with dynamite, killing him stone dead.
The Hitman is the second consecutive Chuck Norris movie I’ve seen that climaxes with Norris beating the ever-living shit out of a legitimately great actor, then blowing him up with either dynamite or a rocket launcher. In Delta Force, that great actor is Robert Forster as Abdul the Terrorist. Here, it is of course Michael Parks as Ronny “Del” Delany.
It’s almost as if the eternally uncommunicative Norris is so boiling over with rage over being out-acted by real thespians that the only way that he can express it is through his fists, kicks and deadly explosives. Oh well. Norris might always win the battle in Cannon films, but real actors like Forster and Parks ended up winning the war.
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