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Hitman 101: The basics to becoming an assassin in movies

American Assassin only the latest in a long line of great quotes from death dealers.

Michael Keaton in American Assassin.

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Michael Keaton in American Assassin.

There are many types of movies about people who deal in death to make a living. There’s the cold-blooded killer story, the revenge drama and even comedic takes on killing for fun and profit. Assassins can be men, women, children and even robots.

In this weekend’s American Assassin, Michael Keaton is the teacher, a Cold War veteran who trains undercover executioners. He teaches counter-terrorism operative Mitch Rapp, played by Dylan O’Brien, the ropes of the killing game.

A quick look back at decades of death merchant movies reveals a set of rules and philosophies assassins will always follow.

When we first met John Wick he resembles the Sad Keanu meme. He’s a broken hearted man whose wife has recently passed away. He’s a loner until a package arrives at his door. It’s a puppy, sent by his wife just before she died, in the hopes that the dog’s love will help ease his pain. For a time it works, but when some very bad men break into his house to steal his Mustang, the dog winds up as collateral damage. With the last living touchstone to his late wife gone, Wick reverts back to his old ways as a mad, bad and dangerous-to-know assassin bent on revenge.

We learn that you can quit, but you’ll always get pulled back in.

“People keep asking if I'm back and I haven't really had an answer,” says Wick. “But now, yeah, I'm thinkin' I'm back. So you can either hand over your son or you can die screaming alongside him!“

Charles Bronson, as the skilled slayer in The Mechanic, teaches his young protégé, played by Jan-Michael Vincent, some basic hitman lessons. “Murder is only killing without a licence,” he says, adding that when you shoot someone, do it right. “You always have to be dead sure. Dead sure or dead.”

That’s key killer advice, but slow down, there is a progression to becoming a hitman.

In The Professional, Leon (Jean Reno) details the system. “The rifle is the first weapon you learn how to use,” he says, “because it lets you keep your distance from the client. The closer you get to being a pro, the closer you can get to the client. The knife, for example, is the last thing you learn.”

Along the way, movie assassins also learn that relationships are verboten.

Remember what happened to Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie)? “Your aim’s as bad as your cooking sweetheart,” taunts John to Jane, “and that’s saying something!”

Day of the Jackal’s would-be Charles de Gaulle assassin (Edward Fox) adds, “In this work you simply can’t afford to be emotional,” although sometimes feelings inevitably get in the way. Just ask Prizzi’s Honor’s Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) who memorably said, “Do I ice her? Do I marry her?”

Once they’ve learned the ropes, one question remains: Why do movie assassins kill?

Max Von Sydow plays one of the great movie killers in Three Days of the Condor, Sydney Lumet’s classic story of conspiracies and murder. His reasoning for doing what he does is chillingly simple. “The fact is, what I do is not a bad occupation,” he says. “Someone is always willing to pay.”

The Matador’s Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) agrees, “My business is my pleasure,” he said.

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