Hollywood’s love of assassins has not waned: Jennifer Lawrence is a Russian assassin in the upcoming Red Sparrow, Keanu Reeves will return as the vengeful hitman John Wick in John Wick: Chapter 3, and Dylan O’Brien appears in the simply named American Assassin.
The troubled-but-sexy silver screen assassin has become a fairly standard action movie stereotype, but a surprising United States Secret Service study on real-life assassins published in the late 1990s challenged many of our preconceived notions about them, painting portraits of people whose complicated and all-too-human paths led them to violence.
In an ambitious effort that culminated in the Exceptional Case Study Project (ECSP), the Secret Service looked back at 83 people who had killed or tried to kill politicians or celebrities, even interviewing 23 of them to gain insight into their thought processes. They reached a number of major conclusions, which are outlined in the extensive paper and occasionally offer surprising insights on the believability of Hollywood’s most recent killers.
1. “Assassination is the end result of an understandable, and discernible, process of thinking and behavior.”
Assassins embark on their missions with a goal, and even if their end result may seem sloppy, erratic, or poorly planned, there’s always a sequence of events that leads a person to try to kill a public figure.
In the case of Red Sparrow, John Wick: Chapter 3, and American Assassin, this logic seems to check out.
In Red Sparrow, Lawrence plays a highly trained covert operative whose story includes a career-ending injury that led to her adopting a strange role in a time of desperation. The plot for John Wick: Chapter 3 is not yet clear, but the previous two films saw Wick following a clear if chaotic path, motivated by loss, duty, and survival. In American Assassin, O’Brien’s character is motivated by personal tragedy and secret ambition to pursue violence, so it’s safe to say that all three of these films fit nicely into the Secret Service’s conclusion that assassination happens at the end of a clear path.
2: “Attackers and near-lethal approachers do not fit any single — or several — descriptive or demographic ‘profiles.’”
It’s tempting to try to fit someone into a narrative. Media coverage of assassins might paint them as the isolated lone wolf, the fed-up government employee, or the political radical. But the people interviewed and studied by the Secret Service didn’t fit into into these archetypes.
They were as young as 16 and as old as 73, and most of them had no violent criminal record, while only a few of them had histories of substance abuse. Many — though not all — of them did share some traits, though. These include histories of mobility and transience, despair, and resentment.
In this respect, it’s a little less clear how our fictitious assassins fit. They’re all white, attractive, and fit, so in that sense they’re all somewhat similar, which goes against the ECSP’s findings. They’re also all trained professionally, which is a trait that the Secret Service study specifically states most assassins don’t share.
That being said, they all have very different backgrounds and took very different paths in their respective stories. Besides, the ECSP is clear that there are some traits that some assassins share, just no clear profile.
3: “Attackers and near-lethal approachers often considered more than one target for attack.”
While many assassins throughout the 20th century had specific politicians or celebrities in mind, the ECSP also outlines how some of them targeted people based on opportunity or changed their targets based on logistical concerns.
This seems to be where the film assassins break most strongly from the trend identified by the Secret Service. Red Sparrow, John Wick: Chapter 3, and American Assassin all seem to depict highly focused assassins who aren’t flexible in their killing plans.
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