Bernie Casey strides purposefully through Hit Man, his flamboyant hat tilted at a rakish angle over a graying Afro, his ex-professional-football player frame squeezed into a series of tight trousers. If he emerges as Hit Man’s hero, it’s only because his brutally efficient enforcer qualifies as marginally less evil than the human parasites around him. Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank director George Armitage directed this 1972 blaxploitation adaptation of Jack’s Return Home, the Ted Lewis novel that previously inspired the seminal British gangster film Get Carter. He strands Casey’s grittily charismatic protagonist in some of the seamiest corners of a Los Angeles rotting from the inside out, then watches in admiration as Casey leaves behind a trail of bullet-riddled corpses and sexually satisfied women. In one particularly impressive display of virility, Casey simultaneously seduces women in different area codes—one in person, the other over the phone.
Hit Man casts Casey as an ex-con from Oakland who travels to the mean streets of Los Angeles to investigate the mysterious death of a brother he hasn’t seen in years. No one seems to have answers, but every bad guy in Southern California agrees that Casey should get on the first bus back to Oakland and stop asking troubling questions and upsetting the underworld’s delicate balance. Pam Grier turns in a brief but memorable/nudity-filled performance as a sexy porn star who gets more than she bargains for when she seduces Casey.
Armitage’s thriller inhabits a shadowy realm of porn theaters and brothels, mob palaces and dogfights. It’s a hard-boiled world devoid of sentimentality or good intentions, where everyone is motivated by the ugliest and least egalitarian instincts. In this poisonous context, Casey’s hunger for revenge almost qualifies as noble, though his means of accomplishing his goals are anything but. Casey gives his character a powerful internal calm and casual authority. He’s a bad man in a wicked world, but at least he has style, and in the funky world of blaxploitation, that counts for an awful lot. Hit Man didn’t have a fraction of the impact of the Jack’s Return Home adaptation from the other side of the pond, but Armitage’s tight, minimalist, thoroughly badass fusion of blaxploitation and film noir proves that greed, lust, and the quest for revenge remain depressingly universal.
Key features: None.