"He aims to please"
Based upon Ted Lewis's 1970 novel Jack's Return Home which was the basis for the superb GET CARTER from 1971 starring Michael Caine, director/writer George Armitage's HIT MAN moves the action from the grim industrial north of England to the seedy underbelly of 1970's Los Angeles and the porn movie industry while mixing in some film noir elements. An underappreciated and early entry in the 70's Blaxploitation wave, it has a charismatic lead turn by ex-NFL player Bernie Casey as an out-of-town and out-for-revenge mobster and best of all the ultimate 70's ass-kicking goddess Pam Grier (here billed as Pamela Grier) as a tough as nails porn star here immediate post-Filipino/ women-in prison stage of her career.
Oakland based ex-con/mobster Tyrone Tackett (Casey) arrives in Los Angeles for his brother's funeral after an alleged suicide and to check on his niece Rochelle (Candy All THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS). Finding the wild living Rochelle not receptive to his offer to live with him, Tyrone hooks up with his brother's business partner/ used car salesman Sherwood Epps (Sam Laws TRUCK TURNER) and begins poking into his brother's death. The trail quickly leads into the L.A. crime underworld and porno movie industry. Meeting up with a succession of low-lives and gangsters (including Paul Gleason from THE BREAKFAST CLUB & Roger Mosley from MAGNUM P.I.) all of whom basically tell him to stop asking questions and go back home, he begins to uncover unpleasant lifestyle choices related to his niece and dead brother.
Taking Ted Lewis's story of honor and revenge and moving into the world of 70's Blaxploitation and urban crime seems like it would be a natural and although Armitage claimed he never saw the Caine film, his script (which the basic story was given to him by producer Gene Corman - Roger's brother) follows it with the originals downbeat ending changed. Armitage's script meanders a bit through the first while as Tackett arrives in L.A. and begins questioning his brother's friends and business associates as there even some odd humor that seems weirdly out of place including a scene where Tackett and Epps get drunk and Tackett begins talking in a high feminine voice and a bit with Epps as he tries to film a TV commercial and mistakenly saying "mother-fucker"
Things pick up quite a bit during the film's second half as Tackett hooks up with porn actress Grier (wonderfully named Gozelda & sporting a tremendous natural Afro) and begin his bloody vendetta. Although there are some scenes in gangsters' mansions most of the film takes place in a gritty world of low rent motels, ill-light porn theatres, brothels, and dinghy streets. For the most part, this is not the beach and palm tree L.A, all of which is beautifully captured by cinematographer and future director Bruce Davis (THE FUGITIVE). Armitage, who had started out with the Roger Corman school of film production (PRIVATE DUTY NURSES), makes great use of actual Los Angeles locations including the Watts Towers and a wild animal park that is used a couple of times, while maybe seeming odd, does figure into the climax and leads to one character's demise.
Although obviously staged there's a winch inducing sequence showing a dogfight which maybe can be augured shows the mindless violence in the which characters reside and be taken in the context of the era's film making & ratings, but still it's something the film could have done without as it has nothing to do with the plot. Like a lot of Blaxploitation films HIT MAN shows the higher up figures in the crime world to be white (and mostly of Italian descent it would seem) who are dealt out a bloody comeuppance during the finale
During its later half HIT MAN lives up to his 70's R rating with bright red bloody shoot-outs (including a machine gun invasion of a gangster mansion) and nudity with most of the female cast seeming to drop their clothes in every scene. It's also worth noting some comparisons to Paul Schrader's HARDCORE from 1979 as Tackett becomes immersed in the world of porn and finds out his nieces' involvement in that world with Grier becoming his guide (as is Season Hubley for George C. Scott in HARDCORE) and his discovery of the truth while viewing a porn film with brings out slow simmering anger in him.
Casey is quite good here, bringing an air of dignity and family honor to the role with his graying Afro even while decked out in full 70' regalia if even though we initially see his action as noble, it's soon relieved that he is just as evil as the men he's pursuing with only his revenge lending his character some credence for the violence that he engages in. He would alternate in major studio film supporting roles like THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, T.V. and Blaxploitation titles like BLACK GUNN and DR. BLACK MR. HYDE. He passed away in 2017.
Although she'd been sweatin' it up in the Philippines for a couple of years, this is the film where you can really see Pam come into her own and while not the tough take charge female protagonist we would see later in films such as COFFY, you can see an icon in the making here.
Marilyn Joi (billed her as Tracy Ann-King) makes an early appearance here and would go on to appear in bunches of 70's classics including THE NAUGHTY STEWARDESSES, BLACK SAMURAI, THE CANDY TANGERINE MAN, ILSA HAREM KEEPER OF THE OIL SHEIKS and CHEERLEADERS WILD WEEKEND.
Released as part of the Warner Archive program, it's a great looking DVD with those gaudy 70's colors popping out and combined with a nice gritty feel that really brings out the seediness of the film's locations. Davis's cinematography makes for one of the best-looking films in this genre and hopefully, we can get a Blu-ray someday.
All the above screen caps are from the Warner Archive DVD