THE HIT," with Terrence Stamp as a gangster turned guru and John Hurt as his cold-blooded nemesis, is a philosophical thriller on death and dying. A little Hemingway, a little Chandler, a little Sartre, a little Puzo, all put together in a tidy, perfect package by director Stephen Frears, best known for his gangster spoof called "Gumshoe."
While slightly whimsical and way off-center, "The Hit" is no spoof. It is a dexterously balanced killer thriller by the idiosyncratic Frears, whose every scene becomes a matter of life and death. A lighter clicks, a gun clicks; life or death, it all sounds the same.
Stamp plays Willie Parker, a hood who ratted on his buddies in exchange for an all- expenses paid sojourn in a Spanish villa. When destiny arrives, it finds him a mystic. Hurt appears as Braddock, the mob's messenger, sent to Spain to execute Parker, now dressed all in white with a face like a monk and the demeanor of a particularly benevolent Freudian psychiatrist.
Parker seems almost luminous as he confronts Braddock in an otherworldy scene before a waterfall. He shines with a misted halo, quotes Donne (a little much) and, saint-like, stills his captor's misgivings.
Parker has been getting ready for this day ever since he squealed those 10 years ago. He's been reading and what he has learned has convinced him that "Death is just a stage in the journey, just a moment as natural as breathing."
Braddock, a soulless, pitiless hit man, seems almost moved, but we're never sure. We're never quite sure of anyone in this film, and that is why it works so well. Braddock's punky sidekick Harry, played by newcomer Bill Hunter, seems particularly unstable, with a mind as simple as Braddock's is sharp.
The characters, all mythic, are fully drawn, down to a Spanish-speaking gangster's moll portrayed by Laura Del Sol, a sultry flamenco dancer trained to use her eyes and her face like a mime. She represents the life force, clawing, kicking survival itself, when she is forced to join the other three in a race from Madrid to the French frontier.
The film is like "Das Boot" in a car, as the four cross the dusty Spanish landscape, confined in superb dramatic fashion to work out their various circumstances.
This complicated and curious film comes from the production company that launched "Choose Me," a similarly individualistic effort. Peter Prince wrote the screenplay and Eric Clapton the score for flamenco guitar (performed by Paco De Lucia), a surprising touch that accentuates the story but is not intrusive.
"The Hit" doesn't miss.
THE HIT (R) -- At the West End.