Assassinations in film typically are shown in the final phase of the murderous plot, the interesting bits. However, the assassin's job is largely one of planning. An overly deliberate assassin balances all contingencies with an employer's desire that the death not be traceable to its source. This disconnection of motive provides an interesting position: external contracting. A group of conspiratorial assassins in film traditionally contracts, or forcibly compels, an unwitting patsy or dupe into a significant role in an assassination plot. These accidental assassins are the point of greatest failure as they attempt to escape their undesired, deleterious tasking.
Characters forced into an assassination plot are not the most loyal associates. They are not given the entire plan. Their personal objectives are counter to the goals of the project. They are under duress. As a result, the assassins compelling these characters establish a set of inescapable rules to guide their patsy. Normally, these bounds are the looming threat of death or the threat of death against loved ones. If the patsy tries to find help, they are met with disbelief as the conspiracy reaches into the ranks of the authorities. A good film assassination plot has logical controls to keep a fall guy from escaping. It makes them feel helpless and trapped. Those are the rules of the plot.
Despite the comprehensive nature of a conspiracy, there are always loopholes through which the patsy can slip. After all, the patsy is usually the protagonist of a film rather than the conspirators. In a film about an assassination plot, filmmakers need to first establish reasonable rules to snare the protagonist. They then need to allow a consistent way for the protagonist to break free. These filmmakers think hard on how to commit the perfect crime and immediately concoct a way to hinder it. Movie rules are meant to be broken, and movie assassination plots are meant to be foiled.
From the standpoint of the film conspirators, such a defeat is a project failure. Requirements are not met. This ruination is the result of a hostile team member. When attempting to assassinate an important figure, a film conspirator should be aware of the risks of outsourcing crucial positions to involuntary external contractors.
A common plot features a severe case of misdirection during or after an assassination attempt. The forced character acts as a distraction to shield the conspiracy from investigative scrutiny. In these plots, the members of the conspiracy are entwined with the authorities or know enough about a legal system to throw attention on the patsy. Fabricated evidence is standard and sufficient as proof of initial guilt. The patsy contributes by fleeing prosecution and becoming even more suspicious. Patsy protagonists find themselves in contention with the system meant to protect them. Escape is difficult when nobody believes you and proof is in short supply. For the conspirators, these cases are best described as intentional mistaken identity.
In Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 film North by Northwest, advertising executive and snappy suit wearer Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) bumbles into being the patsy at the center of two separate and counter conspiracies. He becomes encumbered with a dangerous game of assassination and armed crop dusters.
Mistaken identities plague Thornhill. On one side, foreign spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) misidentifies him as an American intelligence operative named George Kaplan. Vandamm fears that Kaplan plans to ruin his conspiracy of general malignancy. On the other side, the real George Kaplan is a fictive man created by a government intelligence agency. This agency utilizes and promotes the misidentification of Thornhill as Kaplan to distract Vandamm from a mole placed inside his criminal organization. In response, Thornhill is confused. He finds himself unable to prove that he is not indeed George Kaplan.
The villainous Vandamm organization attempts to discredit Thornhill/Kaplan. They turn local authorities against Thornhill/Kaplan by creating fake reports, crafting evidence, and impersonating high ranking officials. In a coup for Vandamm and a damning piece of evidence against Thornhill/Kaplan, a United Nations diplomat is assassinated in the lobby of the United Nations building with Thornhill/Kaplan left accidentally holding the murder weapon: a thrown knife. Unluckily for Thornhill/Kaplan, a newspaper photographer snaps a picture of him holding the bloody knife.
Thornhill flees "in a Northwestern direction." He is trapped by Vandamm's game and the government agency's indifference. Thornhill acts as the distraction that everyone wants, except him. The situation catalyzes quickly with his position as an unintended contract patsy. He is a wanted criminal and accused assassin who cannot turn to anyone for help (even his own mother). Nobody in a position to help believes him.
Thornhill (and screenwriter Ernst Lehman) test one way to break out of an untenable situation by following the old adage "when nobody believes you, believe in yourself." Thornhill decides to confront the conspirators head-on and secure his freedom. In the process, he illustrates the dangers of relying on a wildcard contractor in assassination conspiracies. For the government agency, he nearly unveils the undercover agent in Vandamm's organization. For Vandamm, Thornhill causes the death of everyone in his organization with a deadly dance on the faces of Mount Rushmore. Compulsory participation in a conspiracy is hazardous employment method for all involved. The project fails.
Another case of wrongful accusation comes from the 1998 Leslie Nielsen spoof film Wrongfully Accused. The film is a spoof of the 1993 Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones film The Fugitive and shares (copies) the same story structure. Both films tell the tale of a man convicted of first-degree murder, his subsequent escape, and his attempts to clear his name.
Nielsen plays Ryan Harrison, a concert violinist who plays to cheering crowds and celebrities like the sock puppet Lamb Chop. One night, he accidentally finds himself at the center of an assassination conspiracy codenamed "Highlander." Harrison discovers a one-armed, one-eyed, one-legged assassin killing a famed philanthropist. Harrison is blamed for the assassination. Nobody believes his claims about the assassin as the evidence is stacked against him. He is eventually convicted of the murder and is sent to prison. On the way, a bus crash and train chase free Harrison. The resulting manhunt plays into the "Highlander" conspiracy as it distracts authorities from their next assassination target. The conspirators indirectly recruit Harrison into their plan as a patsy.
Harrison flees in a manner similar to the smugly handsome Thornhill. He understands that the legal system is against him as his guilt is established. Fleeing merely casts more suspicion on him, but he has no other options. He is alone. Also similar to Thornhill, Harrison decides to confront the assassins that are exploiting him. He tracks the multiple amputee assassin through medical records and uncovers a plot to kill the Secretary-General of the United Nations at a Scottish Heritage Festival.
Again, Harrison proves the dangers of compulsory participation in an assassination plot. An unwitting contractor like Harrison is an uncontrolled variable in this situation, regulated only by ancillary forces that are coincidentally if temporarily concurring. For an assassination project, the risk assessment on exercising such an asset is extremely high. Harrison intervenes in the assassination attempt and leaves a trail of clues that lead authorities to the assassins. The conspiracy is disrupted. The project fails.
A much less subtle tale about abusing the assassin-patsy relationship is the 2007 film Shooter. In the film, Mark Wahlberg plays Bob Lee Swagger, a retired Recon Marine Scout Sniper. Swagger is tricked into aiding in an assassination and reacts poorly. He Mark Wahlberg-ily Mark Wahlbergs all that oppose Mark Wahlberg. Phrased differently, Swagger is not as delicate as Thornhill or Harrison in rebelling against the objectives of the project imposed upon him.
Bob Lee Swagger is an angry recluse living in the wilderness, isolating himself from human contact. A group of assassin conspirators approach Swagger and appeal to his patriotism by claiming they are trying to prevent the assassination of the President of the United States. They wish to consult with Swagger about the possibility of a sniper killing the President at a venue in Philadelphia. The conspirators and Swagger travel to Philadelphia where the President is giving a speech. They then trick Swagger into lining up a shot to kill the President. A separate gun lined up in an analogous form takes the shot. The shot kills an Ethiopian archbishop, and Swagger is accused. Swagger flees and attempts to clear his name.
On the run, Swagger encounters a rookie FBI agent that can be instrumental in working within the law enforcement community to uncover the real assassins. The FBI agent can use resources to aid Swagger in unraveling the conspiracy. Swagger can clear his name by proving to the attorney general that his weapon could not have possibly fired the lethal round. Except Swagger does not like this simple procedure. The conspirators have already thought of this contingency. Plus, it is too logical of a proposal. After all, Swagger is a fully trained Scout Sniper and finds another loophole in the conspirator's plan. He tracks them to a cabin in the woods, executes them, and then incinerates their bodies in a propane explosion. The problem is solved for Swagger (less so for the conspirators).
The conspirator's plan is tightly organized and executed. It is elaborate (perhaps too elaborate) in its controls on mitigating many possible risks. The conspirators analysis of the situation provides solutions to a variety of problems. Even when Swagger uncovers the conspirators, they have a way out from scrutiny. The one variable they underestimate is the tenacity of their external contractor. Once again, a failure in communication and regulation as well as a reliance on outside resources for key personnel undermines an otherwise well designed assassination project. The project fails.
With these failures as examples, some film assassins feel there is a problem with forcibly induced patsies. They feel that the patsies are not given enough responsibility. These conspirators simplify their plans by conflating the roles of patsy and trigger-puller. In these films, the patsy is compelled to become the assassination and take all responsibility. In order to push the patsy into the extra obligation, the conspirators threaten to kill the patsy or one of the patsy's loved ones. A literal gun is put to their head or a significant other's head. This constraint is intended to create a sense of hopelessness for the patsy character. All possible outcomes of this particular conspiracy result in death. These conspirators feel that the key to a successful assassination plot is motivation.
An illustration of this gun-to-the-head approach is in the 1995 film Nick of Time. Johnny Depp plays Gene Watson, a soft-spoken man selected by a conspiracy to assassinate the governor of California. At a train station, a shady man identified as Mr. Smith (Christopher Walken) selects Watson as the patsy for an assassination plan. Watson proves he is the ideal candidate when he is provoked into protecting his daughter from rowdy skateboarders. Mr. Smith and his female accomplice kidnap Watson and his daughter. The conspirators then inform Watson that he is to kill the governor. The death of his daughter is the penalty for failure.
The scenario traps Watson inside an expensive hotel where the governor is to give a speech. Watson learns that he is being watched at all times. Any attempt to alert anyone at all results in the death of his daughter. Watson feels claustrophobic in the spacious hotel. He continues to discover that the conspiracy extends to members of the governor's security and even the governor's husband. Watson is corralled into assassination attempts but manages to fail. The conspirators are not amused.
Watson seeks a way out of the inescapable situation. The rules imposed on him seem airtight. Any move he can make can be matched by the conspirators. The conspirator's plan is flexible and result oriented. Watson finds a loophole in the form of a shoe shiner claiming to be deaf. He informs the shoe shiner of his plight, and the conspirators ignore the conversation, thinking it to be inconsequential. Watson and the shoe shiner share a quiet understanding and put a counter-plan into effect. Watson eventually undermines the conspiracy, saves the governor, and rescues his daughter.
This conspiracy shows a different approach to assassinations. The plan concocted by Mr. Smith is highly coordinated with a high chance of success. The problem is it does not solve the most important risk factor: humanity. Humans are unpredictable and bringing more humanity into the equation increases the risk. Giving a captive the means to fight back is not a good idea for captors, no matter how effective the safeguards.
The volatility of human emotion comes into effect in the 2008, Steven Spielberg produced film Eagle Eye. In the film, a sentient supercomputer named ARIIA is built by the military. ARIIA controls all digital equipment in North America. This utility gives the computer near omni-presence and a tremendous predictive capability. The government uses the computer to interdict terrorist attacks and give advice on global affairs. When the President decides to disagree with a decision made by the computer, ARIIA resolves to assassinate the President and install someone who agrees with it.
ARIIA develops an intricate plan that centers on two young people: Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf) and Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan). ARIIA blackmails the pair into working in the conspiracy. Jerry is accused of being a terrorist, and Rachel's young son's life is threatened. The supercomputer further proves its might by exhibiting its surveillance and control capabilities. Other blackmailed citizens usher Jerry and Rachel towards their targets. Jerry and Rachel are trapped and feel as if a god is altering the very fabric of reality to thwart them. ARIIA plans dozens of moves ahead of the two humans as if controlling the future. Movie supercomputers can do that now.
ARIIA's plan is an insidious game of influencing cause and effects. The smallest ripples caused by ARIIA come back into the plan later. The plan involves placing an explosive on Rachel and moving her into range the President at the State of the Union Address. The explosive is supposed to be triggered by a trumpet note (kind of like the explosives in the South Park episode "Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride"). ARIIA does not think this step is one too many in detonating an explosive. The explosion is intended to kill everyone in succession to the presidency down to the Secretary of Defense (Michael Chiklis), who is sequestered. Jerry ruins the plan by preventing the note from being played, thus saving everyone in the room.
Again, the conspiracy is a well-defined plan with controls and adaptability. The defeating determinant is the external contractor. Placing such responsibility on an agent motivated by fear underestimates humanity. ARIIA, as well as any other logical assassin conspirators, depend on their pawns to be rational actors. These plans take into effect emotionality through blackmail and the risk of death, but emotion is difficult to control. It should not be the keystone of any plan, let alone an assassination plan. Human emotions can ruin almost any plan. If Shia LaBeouf has proven anything, it is that he is capable of loud, emotional outbursts and not following directions. ARIIA should probably select candidates for blackmail more carefully, maybe robots.
Combining the misunderstandings of North by Northwest, Wrongfully Accused, and Shooter with the emotionality of Nick of Time and Eagle Eye is the Adventure Time episode "Hitman." In the episode, Jake the Dog and Finn the Human ground the Ice King for four weeks. The Ice King plots revenge and plans to literally hit Jake and Fin (as in punch). Being grounded, the Ice King cannot leave his house. He uses his computer to find a "Hitman" named Scorcher. This hitman is the assassination kind rather than the punching kind. Not knowing this fact, Ice King signs a contract with Scorcher, and Scorcher immediately tries to kill Jake and Finn. Contractors are a problem in assassination conspiracies, even unintentional ones. Ice King realizes the misunderstanding and saves his accidental targets.
Scorcher abides by the rules of the contract and is not swayed to abandon his mission to kill Jake and Finn. Ice King is also trapped by the rules and tries everything in his powers to stop Scorcher, including hiring an ineffective Hitman Hitman and freezing Scorcher. The latter attempt is unsuccessful because Scorcher "is made out of fire, or he commands fire, maybe." The situation seems inescapable for the Ice King.
Ice King has an emotional investment in foiling the assassination attempt and clearing up the misunderstanding. Like Roger Thornhill or Bob Lee Swagger, Ice King determines the best way to undermine the conspiracy is to confront the conspirators: namely, himself. In the end, Ice King uses an old trick, highlighted in the Star Trek episode "Amok Time," as a loophole in the rules established for the assassination.
Ice King unintentionally forms an assassination conspiracy, establishes binding rules, runs afoul of an external contractor, and becomes the interfering dupe in his own accidental plan. A tradition of film assassination conspiracies is condensed into one character in an eleven minute television program.
From a project management standpoint, a film assassin outsourcing important aspects of a conspiracy may seem like a good idea. The contractor is free to hire, due to the compulsion, and has a relatively good probability of actually fulfilling their role. Giving responsibility to an uninterested party seems like the statistically correct path. Still, the math is slightly off on the risk assessment as film assassination conspiracies have a record of failing due to rebellious contractors. Miscommunication, poor motivation, and a general dislike of murder among possible patsies spells doom for a film assassination conspiracy involving contractors.
These conspiracies attempt to plan and control their contractors with strict rules and restrictions, but they still fail. The rules they enforce are subservient to another set of rules -- the rules established by the filmmakers. While the contractor is trapped by the assassins, the assassins are trapped by the filmmakers. This layering of rules is a negative for the conspirators as a general rule among filmmakers is the hero (the patsy) almost always wins, despite the odds.