When you walk around any video retail outlet and see all the unwatchable shit they got on their shelves, it’s hard to believe that there’s a single goddamn movie that isn’t out on DVD yet. But it’s a sad fact that there are still plenty of titles that have never gotten the digital treatment and probably never will. The formerly booming DVD market has plateaued, and where there was once profit in digging up obscure flicks and spot-polishing them for you sonsabitches with apartments big enough to fit those humongous rectangular-ass TVs, now there is only risk. That’s why you have to go through back-alley channels if you want to see the amazingness that is William Lustig’s Hit List.
Lustig is the world-class sleazeball who made Maniac, the movie so disgusting that even Tom Savini was like, “You know, I think we might have gone a little too far on that one.” Lustig also made the underrated Robert Forster revenge picture Vigilante and two-and-a-half Maniac Cop films before becoming some kind of big muckity-muck at Blue Underground Home Video, purveyors of some of the prettiest-looking shitty movies you’ll ever see. So this is a dude who knows his fuckin’ exploitation. When you hand him a generic script about a regular joe whose son accidentally gets kidnapped by the Mob, he knows you gotta put a little extra sauce on there. We’ve seen this type of shit a million times before, but have we seen it with Lance Henriksen as a ninja?
Right away you can tell that this is an amazing movie because it starts with a POV from the flower arrangement on top of a coffin. It's being carried to its final resting place, but then a cop (you can tell he’s a cop because he’s played by Charles Napier’s industrial-sized face) breaks open the coffin and stabs the fucking corpse (a priest, mind you) in the chest with a shovel. The dearly departed is stuffed full of heroin, so Chuck hauls the mobbed-up funeral director in for drug trafficking. This is a great opening for a movie because it lets you know that you don’t know shit. In a flick where the good guys are allowed to chop up dead priests in front of friends and family, anything can happen.
Let me talk about Charles Napier for a sec. He’s got almost 200 credits on his résumé, everything from the original Star Trek to Russ Meyers’ Supervixens to The Blues Brothers. This is a dude who is so good at playing these big, bull-shooting law-enforcement types that you gotta wonder: What are we gonna do when he’s gone? I look at today’s crop of actors and I worry that there’ll be nobody to replace him. You really think we’re gonna be able to slap a Stetson on Seth Rogen in 15 years and he’ll be able to convincingly play the corrupt sheriff of a Nevada town overrun by white slavers? Hell no. They don’t make dudes like Charles Napier anymore, and if they do, they don’t put them in movies. The Charles Napiers of the world, the M. Emmett Walshes, the Dan Hedayas, the Bill Dukes, they just aren’t around anymore. And we as supporters of action cinema need these guys, because they bring the extra color to what is by and large a paint-by-numbers genre. There’s always gonna be scenes where the main bad guy kills one of his own men to show how evil he is, which is why it’s so important to have strong, distinctive character actors to help us tell them apart. I haven’t saluted anybody in a while, but holy fuck, I'm saluting the shit out of Charles Napier right now. He might never get the glory, but I swear to Christ I’ll fight anybody who says there’s a movie in his filmography that he didn't improve by being in it.
Anyway, Hit List is full of dudes like Charles Napier, which is one reason why it rules. We got Rip Torn as the head villain, a real flamboyant mobster who loves laughing, swearing, and being a total piece of shit. Then there’s Leo Rossi as the gangster funeral director-turned-informant. He’s got about a hundred credits under his belt, 90% of them either cops, crooks, or crooked cops. Then we got Uncommon Valor’s Harold Sylvester as the black best friend who dies at the end of the first act, Ken Lerner playing a sheisty lawyer, as per usual, and TV staple Jere Burns (Dear John) as Napier’s partner. You might not know these names, but you know these faces, and their presence gives Hit List a big boost.
But the movie’s ace is my man Lance Henriksen. When Rip Torn needs some informants rubbed out, he calls up Lance at the shoe store where he works. See, Lance doesn’t kill people for the money, since he’s already got this sweet Al Bundy gig where he gets to tickle fat ladies’ feet all day. He does it because killing people is a good time. Sort of a hobby, I guess, but everybody needs to find something they really love in this life. Lance is always gonna be a bad motherfucker no matter what, but when he dresses up like a ninja and grappling hooks his way into a jail to slaughter everyone inside with knives and guns and his bare extremities, you realize that you are in the presence of the eternal awesome. They gave him some blue contacts for this role and it makes him look real creepy, but most of his badassness comes from the fact that he’s just so calm and implacable about murdering. He even does the Michael Myers head-tilt thing after he hangs a guard on a cell door. He’s just gonna keep coming until you’re not alive anymore, and then he’s gonna go keep it real at the shoe store. That’s the type of dude he is, and that’s why he’s more awesome than we as a society deserve.
Hit List’s weak link is its star, Airwolf's Jan-Michael Vincent, who was deep in the grips of wife-beating and binge-drinking at this stage in his career. Even that’s entertaining, though, because it makes him the laziest fucking hero in movie history. Every chance he gets to lay down or have a seat, he takes it. There’s this one scene in the backyard where he’s sprawled out on some patio furniture and it looks like they had to wake him up in between takes and put some peanut butter on his gums like Mr. Ed to make him mouth his dialogue. Every time he’s gotta run or shoot or punch somebody, he gets this look on his face, like, “Aw, don’t make me work.” It’s amazing.
Anyway, the plot is that Lance is supposed to rub out the funeral director, who the feds have stashed in a safehouse across the street from Jan-Michael’s place. As a Plan B, he’ll grab the dude’s kid for insurance if he has to. But due to a wacky mishap, Lance goes to the wrong house and snatches Jan-Michael’s kid instead. The feds are no help, so Jan-Michael reluctantly gets off his ass, takes some Alka-Seltzer, and teams up with the funeral director to save his son and get some payback. Naturally, 2/3 of Jan-Michael’s dialogue is something along the lines of “I don’t care about that. All I want is my kid back.” Then there’s a shootout at a Laser Tag venue where nobody notices all the gunfire. It’s weird to have all these kids with Spaceballs helmets on running around in the middle of a gunfight.
The conclusion is a real showstopper. Jan-Michael chases Lance to the top of this parking garage and blasts him eight times in the chest with a six-shooter. Really, he just shoots the fucking hell out of him. Squibs a’poppin’, I’m telling you. Even I thought he was dead at this point, but then he jumps off the roof of the garage onto Jan-Michael’s car and gets dragged around for like 15 miles. Lustig did some similar person-hanging-off-a-moving-car stunts in a couple of the Maniac Cop movies, and he’s real good at it. It looks seriously unsafe to be attempting this shit without the benefit of being Thai. I mean, Lance is like fucking Jason at this point. You just can’t shake this motherfucker until that thing on the poster happens. (I don't know how to post pictures so I will wait while you Google it and take a look. Funny story, that poster was up on the wall in my 7th grade English class for no good reason, along with Lair of the White Worm.) The nice thing about a movie with a poster like that is that if it ever starts to drag you always know that at least you have that to look forward to.
Hit List is highly recommended to awesome people who like awesome things, but you gotta be seriously committed if you want to see it. The Man doesn’t want you to see Hit List because it might make you start wondering why they don’t make films like this anymore yet Nic Cage makes six or seven terrible movies every single year. Shit, the Illuminati must be involved. There’s no other explanation. They’re protecting themselves by keeping movies like Hit List out of circulation. But for every villain there’s a hero, and that’s why you need to start checking out sites like ioffer.com, where selfless motherfuckers are selling DVD-R’s of suppressed classics at rock-bottom prices. Or you can do what I did and buy Hit List on VHS for a buck and then get it transferred to DVD by the Pakistani dude who owns the video store/cobbler/tailor/electronics repair/phone card wholesaler in the post-industrial wasteland where your office is now located. This is not the most convenient option, but no one ever said the path to righteousness was without its hurdles.