Absurdly overlong given its slight storyline, the crime thriller Hit! somehow manages to sustain interest even though leading man Billy Dee Williams delivers one of his patented laconic non-performances, and even though the contrived plot gene-splices elements from the vigilante genre with tropes from The French Connection (1971). Directed by Sidney J. Furie, who has proven time and again that he’s allergic to logic and subtlety, Hit! thrives on texture. Extensive location photography in Canada, France, and the U.S. fills the movie with vibrant images of diverse places; the sizeable ensemble cast allows Furie to cut back and forth between subplots to ensure narrative variety; and some of the supporting actors, including Richard Pryor, deliver excellent work.
The story begins in Chicago, where federal agent Nick Allen (Billy Dee Williams) attends the funeral of his teenaged daughter, who died of a drug overdose. Nick finds the pusher who supplied his girl with dope, then nearly kills the guy until the pusher says he’s just a street-level nobody. This plants the idea in Nick’s head of traveling to Marseilles, the headquarters of the heroin syndicate that feeds Chicago’s street trade. However, because Nick doesn’t have official sanction for his crusade, he tracks down criminals who have grudges against drug dealers and manipulates these folks into joining his team. This is where Hit! locks into a groove, because Nick’s operatives include a cold-blooded killer (Paul Hampton), an emotionally unstable mechanic (Pryor), an old Jewish couple (Janet Brandt and Sid Melton) whose son died of an overdose, and a sexy junkie (Gwen Welles). In other words, Nick’s team is forever on the verge of self-destructing.
The middle of Hit! is an enjoyably unruly sprawl during which Furie lets his cameras roll while actors simply behave, instead of doing the rigid work of communicating story information. As such, the picture benefits from scenes of Pryor ad-libbing comedy bits, of Williams seething so quietly that he reveals the intensity beneath his supercool façade, and of key supporting players, especially Brandt, articulating anguished emotions. As for the film’s actual thriller elements, they’re derivative but effective. Furie shoots action scenes—as well as long sequences of Nick’s team training for their mission—with the loose verité style that William Friedkin employed for The French Connection. The resulting jittery camerawork invests the movie with tension and urgency, even during passages when the story is treading water.
Holding the whole thing together is the simplicity of Nick’s scheme—he doesn’t want arrests, he wants bodies. His team’s brazen goal is to slip into France, kill as many drug kingpins as possible, and get out. Watching Hit!, one can easily imagine a more rational treatment of the same material—a terse 90-minute thrill ride with an assertive badass like Fred Williamson in the lead. And while that version would have worked, the wide-open spaces of Hit! make a tale that should have seemed trite come across as fresh and visceral. The trick to enjoying the picture, of course, is surrendering to its leisurely rhythms.