Hit List (1989): Gotta Go

From the east coast to the west coast — Matty dissects NYC auteur William Lustig’s solid, L.A. based revenge flick.   

Encouraged by Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment’s hearty pre-sales for Maniac Cop (1988), CineTel Films, Inc. — producers of Armed Response (1986) and Cyclone (1987) — hired Maniac Cop helmer William Lustig to direct their latest cheap n’ cheerful action flick, HIT LIST (1989). Entering prep two weeks after Maniac Cop locked, Lustig wasn’t enthused by Hit List’s script but figured the $1.3million production would be a decent career move, particularly as its L.A. shoot afforded the New York-based auteur chance to ply his trade on the west coast on a grander scale than he had done previously. The future Blue Underground founder was right. Despite some bother with the film’s troubled star, Jan-Michael Vincent; a ding-dong with CineTel bigwig Paul Hertzberg; and a few shaky reviews upon release, Hit List pleased enough of the right people to make Lustig a hot commodity for a spell, ultimately enabling him to get a project he really cared about, serial killer thriller Relentless (1989), off the ground (and with CineTel, no less). As Lustig explained in The Sleaze Merchants:

“Jan-Michael had substance abuse issues which created a real morale problem — because when your star can’t stand up or say his lines it sort of casts a mood over a picture, a prospect of doom… Basically, we just propped Jan-Michael up, did what we had to do with him, and worked around him as best we could. If you watch the film closely, you’ll notice a lot of shots where he’s completely isolated. The reason for that is that I felt he was probably going to have to be replaced, and I didn’t want to have to reshoot the whole movie, just the shots that he was in… In the middle of the picture, I had a blow up with the head of CineTel at lunch and he fired me. I said, “Should I leave now?” and he said, “No, just finish the day.” I did and then, at the end of the day, he rehired me! Then, when I finished the movie and it was screened for some executives at Warner Bros., they stood up —- and they over-exaggerated I think, but, honestly, they said, “Hit List is a better action picture than Steven Seagal’s Above the Law (1988).” They got all excited and I went from being a bum to a king overnight.” [1]

Built from a screenplay by Aubrey K. Rattan (who’d go on to pen Original Gangsters (1996) for Maniac Cop scribe Larry Cohen) and shaped to Lustig’s liking by Peter Brosnan; B-movie renaissance man John F. Goff [2]; and Sam Raimi associates Scott Spiegel and Josh Becker [3], Hit List is a robust revenge caper well served by a solid story and a mostly excellent cast. Given how he was so sozzled that a whopping one-hundred and twenty of his lines had to be looped in post, Vincent is an expectedly limp lead — though in the tragic Airwolf hunk’s defence, the role is slight to begin with. Stronger are the characters that decorate the film’s undercard. Lustig regular Leo Rossi (Hit List was the first of three memorable pairings; Relentless and Maniac Cop 2 (1990) followed) is great as the wise guy snitch Vincent’s suburban everyman teams with on his quest for vengeance, and Lance Henriksen is gloriously slithery as the scary assassin who mistakenly kidnaps JMV’s young son. Elsewhere, Rip Torn and Charles Napier engage in a fascinating game of acting Top Trumps. Competing to see who can submit the most scene-chewing turn, the two trade a multitude of blows — some tartly delivered patter here, a bit of eye-catching prop work there — and add a splodge of exuberance to Hit List’s overarching narrative (as a snarling mafioso and the cancer-addled fed out to stop him, respectively).

While a mercenary assignment, Lustig’s tough, no nonsense style is a good match for the material. He orchestrates the set pieces — car chases, gunfights, and a smattering of ring-twitchingly dangerous-looking stunts (kudos to frequent collaborator Spiro Razatos and his crew) — with a bruising swagger that calls to mind the grit and gallows humour of everything from Point Blank (1967) and Dirty Harry (1971), to Death Wish (1974) and Lethal Weapon (1987). Moreover, Lustig’s assertion that Hit List was a ‘for hire’ gig is contradicted by the film’s obvious auteur trappings. It’s part of the same trajectory as Maniac (1980), Vigilante (1982), Relentless, and the later Uncle Sam (1996); the median in a quintet devoted to exploring the impact of violence on the family unit.

Acquired for domestic theatrical release by New Line, Hit List opened in Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Lustig’s native NYC on 3rd March 1989; one month after Maniac Cop debuted on the big screen in London, and five months before Relentless skidded into American theatres. New Line had a longstanding finance/output deal with CineTel, as did Hit List’s biggest shareholders/U.S. video distributors, RCA Columbia. The film landed on tape in the U.K. at the back end of the year via Warner Bros., with whom CineTel had an equally lengthy foreign distribution pact.

[1] The Sleaze Merchants: Adventures in Exploitation Filmmaking, edited by John McCarty, 1995, St. Martin’s Press.
[2] Best known for his appearances in John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) and They Live (1988), Goff is a screenwriter and ‘that guy’ acting talent. In addition to co-authoring Hit List, Goff pops up in the film as a prosecutor, and his union with Lustig extends to Maniac Cop and Relentless. Goff reprised his Relentless role in Michael Schroeder’s sequel, Dead On: Relentless II (1991).
[3] Uncredited on the finished film, Spiegel and Becker wrote three drafts of Hit List’s script. According to the duo, everything they wrote features in the final cut. 

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