The 10 Most Underrated Hitman Movies of All Time

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The 10 Most Underrated Hitman Movies of All Time

Some of the greatest movies ever made have revolved around the violent affairs of contract killers, be them fictional characters or those based on real-life figures. Movies like Le Samouraï (1967) by Jean-Pierre Melville, The Killer (1989) by John Woo, and Pulp Fiction (1994) by Quentin Tarantino are just a few examples thereof. And while the filmmakers that show up on this list aren’t as renowned as those names, they’ll still ring some bells now and then.



But what’s more is that the films herein feature the absolute biggest stars in modern Hollywood history, from Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaughey to Forest Whitaker and George Clooney. They all perform brilliantly in their respective roles, and for the most part, audiences and critics alike failed to take notice of their efforts. It’s time they finally did. These are Hollywood’s most underrated hitman movies, ranked.

10 Killer Joe

Voltage Pictures

The most infuriating movie on the list, Killer Joe (2011) features Matthew McConaughey as Joe, a police officer who doubles as a hitman. He’s hired by the Smith family: Emile Hersch, Juno Temple, and Thomas Haden Church as Chris, Dottie, and Ansel. Appearing as the stepmother is Gina Gershon, and all-time underrated performances are put on by everyone involved. They define the quality hereof as the Smiths recruit Joe to kill their legitimate mother.

This movie is difficult to watch, and that’s putting it lightly. Its NC-17 rating is there for a reason. But with a screenplay by Tracy Letts — based on his play of the same name from 1993 — and brilliant direction from the great William Friedkin, well-written dialogue with keen comedic timing is showcased all throughout. Critics saw light in its quality, while audiences slept on Killer Joe during its theatrical run. And it hasn’t exactly skyrocketed in name value since. Granted, it’s easy to see why. But if you’re looking for solid performances and keen comedic timing, this one will entertain until its final frame.

9 The American

George Clooney in The American
Focus Features

With George Clooney in the lead role and a capable director named Anton Corbijn at the helm, there’s no telling how time hasn’t been kinder to The American (2010) with regard to popularity. It was never a blockbuster success, or anything. But this action thriller did make great money at the worldwide box office upon release, $68 million against a $20 million budget. And what makes it among the most underrated hitman movies ever made is that this thrilling adventure received somewhat modest reviews from critics overall.

Sure, The American does boast a full, four-star review from Roger Ebert, the most qualified critic in the medium’s history. But with just a 66% approval rating on critical consensus website Rotten Tomatoes, there’s no doubt that The American classified as underrated upon release. And if anything, it’s only waned in name value ever since. But really, it should be known as one of the best movies ever made about a hitman.

8 Internal Affairs

Richard Gere and Andy Garcia in Internal Affairs
Paramount Pictures

Perhaps the most dynamic rapport of any two performers featured from films on this list is shared between Richard Gere and Andy García. The latter appears multiple times after this entry, while Internal Affairs (1990) marks the only appearance from Gere on the list. But he propels nearly every project in which he takes part to new heights, and that’s without a doubt the case here as he portrays an LAPD officer named Dennis Peck.

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Meanwhile, García shows up as Raymond Avilla, an Internal Affairs agent who believes Peck is utilizing his officers for his own personal gain. But little does Avilla know: Peck is actually doubling as a hitman. This renders Internal Affairs applicable for the list, and it’s easily among the most underrated films of its ilk due to a particular paucity of popularity in today’s landscape. Gere and García are among the most talented actors of their generation, and as time goes by, Internal Affairs seems to get thrown by the wayside of their respective filmographies. But here, it lands at number eight.

7 The Replacement Killers

The Replacement Killers by John Woo
Sony Pictures Releasing

Chinese actor Chow-yun Fat made a career in the 1980s by providing efforts in various action films such as City on Fire (1987) and The Killer (1989). Those are both out of Hong Kong, though. Here with The Replacement Killers (1998), it’s worth noting that the aforementioned action star made his American debut, while the film also marks the debut of director Antoine Fuqua. Considering the caliber of that filmmaker’s famous, twenty-first century franchise about a contract killer — called The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington — it’s fascinating to revisit The Replacement Killers today.

Though championed upon release by certain film critics such as Roger Ebert, this film holds one of the worst scores on Rotten Tomatoes out of any project on the list: an approval rating of just 37%. Really, this story about a killer with a conscience should be analyzed in a far more positive light. But considering audiences didn’t even attend their local movie theaters to see this upon release, it’s unlikely to see contemporary success any time soon.

6 Smokin’ Aces

Ryan Reynolds in Smokin' Aces
Universal Pictures 

The best performances of Ray Liotta’s career see him portraying either gangsters or cops, and Smokin’ Aces (2006) marks just his first appearance on the list. Pundits of the industry sleep on his films more so than audiences, with particular criticism being doled out in this regard for the film’s lack of wit within its plot. It’s been dubbed a Tarantino clone of sorts, with its star-studded cast definitely being reminiscent thereof: on top of Liotta, the film at hand also features performers like Ryan Reynolds, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine, and another regular of the list in Andy García.

This is by no means a masterpiece, and that shows in its critical reception. Its characters are underdeveloped and the plot utilizes lazy narration to deliver exposition. But the characters in Smokin’ Aces are perfectly portrayed by their respective performers, and they talk over one another with witty, whiplash-inducing wordplay that will entertain until the film’s final frame. And none of that is to even touch on the quality of its editing and camerawork. There’s plenty to love about Smokin’ Aces even though it’s a bit disappointing to some.

5 The Protégé


With Maggie Q in the primary role, The Protégé (2021) marks yet another entry on the list with an impressive roster of performances among its cast. As Anna Dutton — the most skilled contract killer the world’s ever seen — the aforementioned actress leads the likes of Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Patrick to greatness despite what critics might have agreed on overall. They considered it decent, but really, if you’re a fan of, say, John Wick, then this film should be right up your action-packed alley.

It’s made by the same studio as that famous franchise, with the director of The Protégé being Martin Campbell. For those unfamiliar: Campbell has several high-quality action movies under his belt such as GoldenEye (1995), The Mask of Zorro (1998), and Casino Royale (2006). The one at hand is perhaps his most underrated, with The Protégé ultimately coming in here at number five.

4 Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead

Andy Garcia in Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead
Miramax Films

With intelligent dialogue and engaging camerawork on full display within the film’s opening scenes, the quality of Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995) is perhaps most notably showcased in the convincing performances of its star-studded cast. With Andy García in the lead role, this goes down as his most underrated performance to date, and the most overlooked movie of his in general. Other members of the cast include names such as Christopher Lloyd, Steve Buscemi, and Christopher Walken, with each of their characters providing great dynamics to the plot as a whole.

It follows García’s character Jimmy “The Saint” Tosnia, an ex-criminal who’s dragged back into the life for one more mission. But when he and his partners slip up and kill the wife of a powerful gangster, a hitman named Mr. Shhh (played by Buscemi) is sent to eliminate them. And while the plot doesn’t facilitate any particular poignance in its message, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead remains an entertaining hitman movie that lands here at number four.

3 Killing Them Softly

Richard Jenkins and Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly
The Weinstein Company

With famous performers such as Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, and Sam Shepard, the real crime regarding Killing Them Softly (2012) is that the film accrued just $38 million at the worldwide box office. Sure, it was made off a $15 million budget, but throughout all of those well-known actors, none of them were to even mention Brad Pitt. He plays the hitman Jackie Cogan, who’s hired to clean up the aftermath of a robbery executed against the Mafia during one of their poker games.

The heist was pulled off by Frankie and Russell, two low-level criminals played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendehlson, respectively. They both perform brilliantly and arguably steal the show alongside one another as they rattle off some of the most hilarious, thought-out, and entertaining dialogue you’re likely to read about today. And sure, critics for the most part agreed with these sentiments. But Killing Them Softly holds a somewhat jarring 74% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with audiences viewing the film in an even more negative light. In terms of movies about hitmen, it’s time Killing Them Softly got a little more respect.

2 The Iceman

Michael Shannon in The Iceman
Millennium Entertainment

Though he’s received two Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor throughout his career — the first for Revolutionary Road (2008), then for Nocturnal Animals (2016) — American actor Michael Shannon is one of the most underrated performers of his generation. Firstly, he constantly appears in high-quality films that go overlooked themselves. But Shannon also has some truly underrated performances under his belt as a well-rounded thespian, such as that in The Iceman (2012).

He plays the titular role, a stone-cold killer named Richard Kuklinski, and aside from the wit of its script, Shannon stands out as the film’s greatest selling point. Kuklinski was a notorious American contract killer whose life served primarily as the basis for the story at hand. It’s not completely based thereon. But another name worth noting re: The Iceman would be Winona Ryder, who plays Richie’s wife Deborah — though, her real-life counterpart’s first name was Barbara. Those two famous actors shared a tangible rapport with one another until the film’s final frame, with other performers among this star-studded cast including Chris Evans, James Franco, and Ray Liotta. What went wrong here, again?

1 Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Artisan Entertainment

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, this entry features Forest Whitaker in the lead, eponymous role as Ghost Dog. And it’s worth noting off the bat that this is the most underrated performance of Whitaker’s career, with the aforementioned auteur in Jarmusch going down as perhaps the most underrated from America. And together, the two created the quirkiest hitman to ever exist in the realm of cinema. He’s known by clients and friends alike as Ghost Dog, for starters.

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But to elaborate on his quirks: Ghost Dog’s best friend is an ice cream man who only speaks French, with their interactions providing a great element of comedy to an otherwise poignant plot. Aside from his moniker and his miscommunications with his closest confidant, Ghost Dog also stands out as a character for reading ancient Japanese texts and living by the code of the samurai. But perhaps his greatest idiosyncrasy is his preferred method of communication with his clients: carrier pigeons. These quirks highlight the genius of the script by Jarmusch, with each element playing their respective parts in the overall plot. And you may not have even known this project exists. Without a doubt, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) is the most underrated movie to ever revolve around a hitman.

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