Arts & Culture

Popcorn and Inspiration: Why Movies About Reformed Assassins Are So Popular

BY Mark Jackson TIMEMarch 25, 2021 PRINT

“Black ops agent” or “wet boy” is internal CIA lingo for assassin. There have been loads of cold-blooded assassin movies—a random Google search immediately turned up: Top 150 Assassin/Hitman Films & Shows – IMDb.” Not to mention the popular video game “Assassins” and others of its ilk.

However, movies about “morally reformed” assassins have been on the rise for some time now. The quotation marks indicate a relative concept; we’re not talking about priests here.

There’s an overwhelming fascination with human killing-machines—that sheer destructive force. After all, what is the hugely popular “Terminator” but a time-traveling, mechanized assassin? When Arnold said “I’ll be baaack” in 1984, he wasn’t kidding. Nobody expected him to be back, 31 years later, in IMAX and 3D.

However, it’s the current societal preoccupation with another community that also specializes in termination—special forces military operators—that has upgraded the cold-blooded assassin to the “morally reformed” assassin story.

man pointing gun in Why Movies About Reformed Assassins Are so Popular
In “John Wick,” Keanu Reeves plays an ex-hitman. (Thunder Road Pictures)

Warrior-Spy-Assassin

Former Army Rangers, Green Berets, Delta Force operators, Navy SEALs, Air Force combat controllers, and Marine Raiders, once done with the military, often start a second career with the CIA’s paramilitary asset, the Special Activities Division Ground Branch, which hires the best of the best of military special forces operators.

Some former operators also go beyond door-kicking, flash-bang grenades, room-clearing, and snatch-and-grabs into the stealthier black ops community. They don’t have to go far to transpose their hard-won military skills of terminating human life—especially skills involving stealth, intel gathering, hand-to-hand combat, and sniping—to become spies and assassins.

Killing is the name of the game for special forces operators and assassins alike. But ultimately, a great many of the men in the special operations forces community are patriotic, morally superior, church-going men. This inner code and moral compass has been portrayed in films like “Act of Valor,” “Lone Survivor,” and “American Sniper.”

To quote former U.S. Navy SEAL Brandon Webb, who more or less single-handedly revamped the entire SEAL sniper course, and who describes his fellow friends and teammates in his latest book thusly: “All three of them had such kind, generous natures. ‘Sensitive’ may not be a word you expect in a description of the nation’s deadliest war fighters. But there it is.”

This trend has bled into the cinematic assassin narrative. Ultimately, it’s more uplifting to hear stories of true warriors and reformed killers, as opposed to cold-blooded ones. What’s more inspiring than tales of redemption and righteousness?

man faces gun
Viggo Mortensen as a former hitman for the Irish mob in “A History of Violence.” (New Line Cinema)

The Warrior Quadrant

So, what’s the attraction to the concept of an incredibly lethal man? It has to do with the fact that the spec ops and black ops professions showcase the most concentrated, distilled essence of the warrior archetype, and modern men (and women) thirst for knowledge of the true warrior ethos.

What constitutes a warrior? Warrior is boundary setter, enforcer against trespassers. Sentinel, protector, shield. Destroyer of fears and attacks. Warrior embodies courage, aggressiveness, decisiveness, discipline, integrity, accountability, purpose, mindfulness, adaptability, skill, loyalty, and service.

The archetypes of the mature masculine have been under scrutiny in American culture since the early 1980s. The modern, international men’s movement, especially the mytho-poetic men’s movement—spurred into existence largely by feminism as it existed in the 1970s—defines four quadrants of the mature male psyche: the warrior, king, lover, and magician.

The Boyhood-to-Manhood Rite of Passage

American men up until recently had largely lost access to the birthright of all males, namely, the classic boyhood-to-manhood rite of passage that’s existed in healthy communities, tribal and otherwise, the world over since the dawn of humans.

The current paltry remnants are the bar mitzvah and high school sports. But not everyone is Jewish, and not everyone’s a jock. And now traditional manhood is furthermore under siege by the creeping manipulations of communism infiltrating American society by way of disguised, benign-seeming, liberal and progressive agenda-based hyperawareness of gender issues.

Women in the 1960s and ’70s, completely fed up with the uptight, pedantic, patriarchal, emotionally illiterate, “mansplaining,” hat-wearing, briefcase-toting, mildly misogynistic, 1950s-style male, successfully convinced men that a sensitive man was more sexually attractive to women.

This desire of women to have a more balanced partner was warranted—that ’50s guy, such as he was, was in need of an upgrade. He needed a detox. It’s just that no one could elucidate exactly where he got off track. But men responded by subconsciously halting their archetypal mature-male psychic growth cycle. The wisdom and understanding of the process and its profound necessity in a healthy society had long gone missing.

This worked, for a time, as a counterbalance. Women became more masculine; men became more feminine. However, women soon and rightfully became disgusted with the resultant, living-in-mommy’s-basement, slacker man-child, who couldn’t and wouldn’t pick up the check, didn’t know the meaning of the word chivalrous, and cried way too much.

Where did the real men go, the world’s women demanded to know? At which time the male community finally woke up and rediscovered some ancient truths: namely, men cannot base their understanding of what constitutes a man by listening solely to the wants and desires of women.

Why? Because women never know what they want. But they know exactly what they want. But they never know what they want. But they know exactly what they want. But they …. And ultimately, women cannot teach boys and men … to be MEN.

It must also be mentioned here that modern feminism originates in the communist agenda to destroy tradition, by sowing jealousy and insisting that all women are eternally oppressed by men—but that’s a topic for another piece.

Anyway, in traditional culture, only men can teach true manhood to boys and men. And so the male rite of passage is returning, in conscious form, to modern culture, and with it, the rebalancing of the male-psyche quadrants. To learn about the results and what modern women think about all that, read my review of the stunning documentary regarding the modern men’s movement, “The Work.”

It’s safe to say that women, especially with nesting and children in mind, look for well-developed warrior qualities in men. They’d prefer a man with whom they could walk down a dark alley in a dangerous neighborhood and feel supremely safe. Of course, some women prefer to get a black belt in Krav Maga and/or Brazilian jiu-jitsu and feel that way with or without a man.

But ultimately, to quote author George Orwell: “We sleep peacefully in our beds because rough men stand by to visit violence on those that would do us harm.” Or, like Jack Nicholson’s Marine Corps Colonel’s line in “A Few Good Men”: “You don’t want the truth, because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.”

But this is part of why the morally reformed assassin story is so popular these days.

How They’re Morally Reformed

What’s so intriguing about “The Bourne Identity” is the fact that the character of Jason Bourne has powerful amnesia. He can’t remember who he was, but he discovers that he has a jaw-droppingly impressive set of lethal skills and has no idea where he learned them. When he discovers that he was previously an assassin, his true self is mortified.

man running with gun in crosshairs
Matt Damon plays Jason Bourne, an amnesiac CIA black ops agent in “The Bourne Identity.” (Universal Pictures)

In addition to Matt Damon in “The Bourne Identity” (CIA black ops), there is also Liam Neeson in “Taken” (ex-CIA black ops) and Denzel Washington in “The Equalizer” (ex-CIA black ops).

man with gun
Liam Neeson in “Taken” plays an ex-CIA black ops agent whose daughter is abducted. (20th Century Fox)

Also, there’s Washington’s “Man on Fire” (ex-assassin), Keanu Reeves in “John Wick” (ex-hitman), and Viggo Mortensen in “A History of Violence” (ex-Irish mob hitman).

Their characters are all formerly (and currently) unstoppable, deadly men who can impose their wills on highly dangerous situations. You mess with them, you get dead quick.

man in rain with pistol
Ex-CIA black ops agent Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) in, “The Equalizer.” (Columbia Pictures)

But these men have undergone inner transformations. Mortensen’s Tom Stall spent a long time drifting in the desert, finding his moral compass. Jason Bourne contacts his true self due to the trauma of being shot and floating in the ocean a long while before being fished out by a French trawler, and his ensuing coma overriding the memory of his lethal self.

While we don’t learn much about the inner transformations of Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall or Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills, we see the results: McCall safeguards a young, vulnerable prostitute, while Mills rescues his trafficked daughter.

They’ve all got moral codes now. But they can still access the Wild Man, or warrior. And we enjoy very much that they can access the Wild Man. We’ll watch that all day long. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as sending a former assassin after child-traffickers; it’s likely the reason that the meme of  Neeson-as-Mills on the phone saying “I will find you, and I will kill you” has become part of the international lexicon. To learn more about the Wild Man and the warrior, again—read my article on “The Work.”

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
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