Contract Killer (aka Hitman, 1998) Movie Review

This review of “Hitman” is based on the American version, which is dubbed in English and was re-released under the title “Contract Killer”, with an all-new poster (that is also a bit misleading) and, if I’m correct, a completely new “Americanized” soundtrack, including a host of catchy rap songs. (The original Chinese title was “King of Assassins”.)

“Hitman” is an action-comedy that actually manages to be pretty action-packed as well as pretty funny. Not surprisingly, Eric Tsang (“Three”) provides the bulk of the film’s comedy, with Jet Li (“Hero”) as a country boy (and straight man to Tsang’s joker) good for a couple of chuckles. Tsang plays Norman, a conman who takes aspiring hitman Fu (Li) to a meeting of international assassins. The topic: a “revenge fund” has been set up by a notorious Japanese crimelord who was recently dispatched by a vigilante known as “the king of killers”. Up for grabs is $100 million to the first hitman to bring the aforementioned “king” to an untimely death.

“Hitman” doesn’t offer up any laugh out loud moments, but does manage to pass as a successful comedy. For those who may be conjuring up images of Wong Jing, take heart — “Hitman” doesn’t follow the formula of Absurdist Hong Kong cinema like a previous Jet Li action-comedy called “High Risk”. “Hitman” never forces the jokes, and the action scenes are not so outrageously bloody that they make you feel awkward for having laughed at the comedic bits a moment earlier. The two genres, in fact, are very well balanced, and one never fully trumps the other.

I’m actually hardpressed to call this a Jet Li movie, because although Li is the star, his character really doesn’t do much by way of enhancing the storyline. Fu is a skilled ex-soldier from Mainland China who has come to Hong Kong to make enough money in order to buy his mother a “big mansion”, but ends up living with a bunch of out-of-work hitmen instead. Not a complete bumpkin, Fu actually has his head on straight and at one point even turns the tables on scheming conman Norman, who plans on squeezing Fu’s skills for all its worth. This scheme backfires when Li chickens out on an assignment and ends up saving the target instead of killing him. Apparently Fu isn’t that kind of hitman.

Simon Yam (“Looking for Mr. Perfect”) has a supporting role as a cop name Chan, who shows up every now and then — one suspects — just to keep the character in the minds of the viewer. Of course it doesn’t take much to guess that Yam has a bigger role to play; the dialogue is just so obvious. Gigi Leung (“Avenging Fist”) plays Tsang’s exasperated daughter Kiki, a law school student who has all but given up trying to lead her father onto the straight and narrow. With any other leading man besides Jet Li, Kiki would have ended up as Fu’s love interest. But since Li, like Jackie Chan, treats movie romance like the plague (to be hinted at but no more), Kiki only appears every now and then, which is a shame because Leung is quite charming in the role.

As an action-comedy, “Hitman” is one of the more successful ones to come out of Hong Kong. Director Wei Tung achieves success with the action for the most part, although a lengthy nighttime sequence at Norman’s apartment was too dark to see much of anything. Also, the sequences involving the king of killers, though probably too brief, are pretty exciting stuff. Jet Li’s fights, mostly involving fisticuffs, are trademark Li — fast, furious, and efficient. And it should be said that the ending, pitting Li and two other characters against a katana-wielding Japanese villain and his high-kicking (not to mention cheating) foreigner bodyguard, brings back too many memories of Li’s superior fight film “Fist of Legend”.

Now, let me talk a bit about the English voice dubbing, because I just can’t seem to get enough of it. The whole thing is, in a word, miserable. But the dubbing is of such poor quality that it’s good. In particular the actor doing Jet Li, who sounds just a bit too much like Arnold Schwarzenegger, especially in his pronouncements of specific words and phrases. Also, it was amusing to hear Simon Yam being dubbed by a guy who has the world’s deepest throat. And then there’s the guy doing Eric Tsang, who actually sounded like Tsang! I do not over exaggerate when I say “Hitman” is worth it just to hear the awful English dubbing. Now this is entertainment.

Wei Tung (director) / Hing-Ka Chan, Kam Fu Cheng, Vincent Kok (screenplay)
CAST: Jet Li …. Fu
Eric Tsang …. Norman
Simon Yam …. Chan
Gigi Leung …. Kiki
Keiji Sato …. Eiji

Buy Contract Killer on DVD