Story by Aubrey K. Rattan
Screenplay by John F. Goff, Peter Brosnan, Josh Becker, and Scott Spiegel
Directed by William Lustig
Hit List takes the vague premise of Vigilante, but heavily rewrites it for late-80s/early-90s direct to video action. It’s less dirty and gritty, with more wise guy quips and an optimistic tone. But shades of Lustig’s themes are there. The system is still broken, criminals are running free and they can’t be contained by the courts, and our heroes will have to step in and do what the system won’t. Hit List was made for Cinetel Films, best known here for their constant stream of SyFy flicks. Lustig had previously made Relentless for them, which had become one of the top-grossing DTV films of 1989 and even had a limited theatrical run.
Hit List has another amazing cast – Lance Henricksen, Rip Torn, Jere Burns, Charles Napier, Harold Sylvester. Weirdly, the success of the film being funded rested entirely on getting Jan-Michael Vincent to play the lead. Also weirdly, according to William Lustig, Jan-Michael Vincent was often drunk on set, Lustig joking that Vincent could barely stand up straight for many shots. The script was rewritten several times, including reworkings by uncredited writers Josh Becker and Scott Spiegel.
I saw Hit List at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in their Bay Area Now 7 program, under the Invasion of the Cinemaniacs! heading, specifically the part curated by Jesse Hawthorne Ficks of Midnite for Maniacs, who hosted two William Lustig triple features (a sextuple feature?) spread across two days. Hit List screened after Maniac and Vigilante, while the next night was all three Maniac Cop films. William Lustig himself was in attendance, and did some entertaining Q and As. Lustig is very charismatic and shared stories about filming and some of the actors/producers of his films. I’ve included some of what he mentioned in the reviews.
The supporting cast and the stunts are the things to focus on for Hit List, because everything else just doesn’t work right. Lance Henriksen is just amazing as the crazed hired assassin Chris Caleek, who also is a women’s shoe salesman (a deadly Al Bundy?) That tidbit makes Harold Sylvester’s appearance more fun, as he was a regular in later seasons on Married With Children as Al’s coworker Griff. Henriksen spends his undercover time wearing gigantic glasses and flirting with old ladies, but quickly switches gears to firing guns and having a mean look on his face. He also sports a huge tattoo across his back.
Vic Luca (Rip Torn) is a mafia boss yet again on trial, mocking the police’s lack of witnesses to the media. Witnesses who keep turning up dead before they can testify. Hmmmm… But the latest arrest of some of Luca’s men (who were hiding cocaine in dead bodies!) means two more people who will testify. Until Luca sics Caleek after them. One quickly ends up dead (along with a whole mess off cops), while the other, Frank DeSalvo (Leo Rossi), is hiding out with FBI Agents Tom Mitchum (Charles Napier) and Jared Riley (Jere Burns) across the street from Jack Collins (Jan-Michael Vincent)’s house. One nine spinning into a six on the house’s address later, and soon Jack’s wife is assaulted, his friend Brian is dead, and son is kidnapped.
The FBI’s plan is to arrest Jack until the trial, so that Vic Luca will think that he did have the right child kidnapped and no one will testify. Jack overhears their plans and escapes, then goes on a mission to rescue his son by kidnapping Frank DeSalvo, the two teaming up and becoming friends as they battle through waves of villains and the crazed Chris Caleek.
Hit List has numerous action scenes, but the highlights are the shootout in the laser tag arena (the confusion and kids running around with laser guns enhancing the danger while providing a unique atmosphere) and the final fight with Chris Caleek. Which just goes on and on and gets nuttier and nuttier. Those sequences alone make up for the disjointed rest of the film and Jan-Michael Vincent’s irregular acting (sometimes he’s wooden, sometimes he’s good). Stunts were headed by Spiro Razatos, who first worked with Lustig on Maniac Cop right before Hit List, and continued working with Lustig after, and went on to an amazing stunt career. Razatos has worked on the Fast and Furious films, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and several Bollywood action films. He’s the top stunt guy, and his early work you can see here show a type of energy that just make the sequences so much cooler.
If you love DTV action, Hit List is a great choice. But if you aren’t a big fan of the niche, then it’s best to try something else for casual exposures, as Hit List just doesn’t stand out like Lustig’s other works. It’s not terrible, it just doesn’t have the special spark. It was the weakest entry of the six films, Maniac Cop 3 edging it out due to MC3‘s insane final chase sequence.
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