"The first rule of assassination: kill the assassins."
A professional killer (most likely a Hitman with a Heart
) suddenly finds himself being hunted by the very organization he works for. Cue a plot line involving him taking out other assassins as he works his way through the ranks trying to find out who wants him dead and why.
Sometimes it's because the assassin wants to quit their profession, leading to The Syndicate
(or The Government
, or whatever other employers he's working for
) reminding him, in deadly fashion, that there's only one way to leave
. Sometimes it's because his employers don't want to pay him for a crucial job or consider him to have outlived his usefulness
or failed them in some manner
, particularly if he refused to do a hit for them that the assassin considered to be against his principles
(women and kids are an all time favorite, falling In Love with the Mark
being especially common). Sometimes it's revenge for a past loss or embarrassment at the assassin's hands, or because he or she wants something (or someone) that the assassin has and wants him or her out of the way. But most often, the reason for the Contract on the Hitman
is because the employer doesn't want anything linking the killing that the assassin did back to them, and wants the assassin eliminated because — say it with us, people — He Knows Too Much
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Anime and Manga
- In Noir, the titular assassin duo constantly finds themselves targeted by the same people who they are working for, however, it is later revealed that their "employer" only wanted to increase their skills in The Spartan Way.
- Several of the employers of Golgo 13 have tried this. He's killed every last one of them for it. His first rule: "I will not accept a client's betrayal."
- Train Heartnet in Black Cat.
- Teresa in Claymore. She isn't quite a hitman per se, since her assignments are only hits on Youma, but that's basically the same thing.
- In Angel Heart, Glass Heart's final job from the Organization that trained her was to kill a hitman, and once she goes missing, there's a contract out on her. Several cases in later volumes have to do with this theme as well.
- This also happened a few times in City Hunter, the manga of which Angel Heart is a spin off of, as the title character had assassins sent to kill him in multiple occasions.
- In the Weiss Kreuz OVA, Ken and Omi refuse to kill a sympathetic target, so their teammates are ordered to kill them. Turns out to be part of a plot, though.
- During and after the end of the first season, Hei in Darker Than Black.
- Lupin III:
- Pretty much the premise of Lone Wolf and Cub is disgraced government executioner Lone Wolf evading the many, many, many people out to kill him.
- Section 9 in Ghost in the Shell is officially a special search and rescue team, unofficially a cybercrime-focused counter terrorism unit, but the entire country of Japan is in such a corrupt state that they are really just one of the countless hit squads employed by the many rival political factions. As one of the few units who take their job of protecting the population seriously, they frequently make themselves targets of other teams that want them dead for interfering with their superiors' illegal activities. Actually, they end up fighting against other government employees almost as often as against actual terrorists or criminals who usually end up to revealed to be goons of some politician or another as well.
- As an example, in addition to Jurisdiction Friction between Section Nine and the police (with Section Nine more than once taking over a case the cops couldn't handle), and the corrupt Ministry of Health SWAT Team, the climax of season one sees them hunted by the Umibozu, the Japanese Navy's version of SEAL Team Six. In 2nd Gig, they get hunted down by Army Rangers.
- In The DCU, the Hook was executed by the League of Assassins for failing to kill the circus aerialist Deadman, although ironically it turned out he hadn't actually failed - Boston Brand happened to have an identical twin brother who took his place in the act, leading to the confusion. This is standard League of Assassins fare; if you can't close the deal, you've got not place among the elite killers of the world.
- In Deathstroke, Slade, going after an employer who betrayed him, is targeted by a second assassin, Jannissary. When Slade has Jannissary at his mercy and explains his motives, Jannissary gives him the money he had paid; Slade returns it before killing the employer.
- In Ramba #12, Ramba is hired to murder the head of the Teamsters' Union. Ramba is given specific instructions and a gun to use. This is a little suspicious, so she copies down the license number of her employers' car. The hit goes badly, because the gun does not shoot straight and it only has one bullet. Ramba chases her quarry into his office building and finishes him with a knife, but the police have already been called. She escapes and backtracks to find out who set her up.
- In From Hell, the conspirators contemplate having William Gull killed when his mental illness reveals him as a liability. Ultimately they throw him into an asylum under a false name.
- Jackie Estacado, mafioso hitman, of The Darkness finds himself on the receiving end of this once his powers manifest.
- Three businessmen who once hired Elektra had this as official policy. They would routinely "retire" hitmen after they performed three jobs, using their replacements to do the deed. One of the three was smart enough to avoid trying this with Elektra. Too bad one of the others didn't get the memo...
- The Hitman movie. See also the Video Game examples below.
- The Bourne Series
- The titular character of John Woo's The Killer has to deal with his syndicate trying to kill him after pulling off the hit that he hoped would earn him the money to have a singer he accidentally blinded be able to see again, due to the boss, Wong Hoi/Johnny Weng, wanting to keep the money for himself and clear the table for his ambitions. He doesn't survive, though to his credit, it takes the mob boss himself to finally end him.
- The Sylvester Stallone movie Assassins, where Antonio Banderas is contracted to kill the Hitman with a Heart.
- Fulltime Killer apes the film Assassins, in that the wild hitman Tok has modeled himself after action films and intentionally imitates the Stallone film in his rivalry with number one assassin O.
- In Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai the main character is an assassin who work for a mid-level mobster because said mobster saved his life years ago. After his latest job The Don marks him for cleanup as well.
- The main character in Grosse Pointe Blank is targeted by fellow hitmen after he refuses to join their labor union.
- The Mechanic (1972) movie with Charles Bronson as a mob hitman. Bronson's character trains the son of a Mafia boss in his art without getting permission from his employers, so they set them both up to be killed. Ironically after escaping the trap, the mobster's son then murders Bronson for his own personal reasons, and is himself killed by a bomb left by Bronson in his car.
- La Femme Nikita, including the American version Point of No Return (a.k.a. The Assassin) and the Hong Kong version Black Cat.
- In Kill Bill, the Bride's Roaring Rampage of Revenge begins when the other members of her hit squad try to take her out at her wedding rehearsal.
- Machete, uses this as it's premise, deleted scenes also show the Carnival of Killers.
- Handled more subtly in Mr. and Mrs. Smith; the two assassin organizations found out their best employees were married to someone on the other side, decided this was bad for business, and set them on a collision course so that they'd have to kill each other. The result is alternatively tense (as a straight up action thriller) and wryly amusing (as a metaphor for a troubled marriage).
- After they end up refusing due to a mutual In Love with the Mark (only after much drama, naturally), both organizations try a more traditional way of getting rid of them. They fail.
- In Crank, Jason Statham's hitman character is targeted after his Columbian employers hire him to assassinate a Chinese mob boss, and they want to use him as the scapegoat. The twist is that he didn't kill the Chinese guy, who is appropriately grateful.
- At least until the sequel.
- The Grammaton cleric John Preston in the movie Equilibrium is a highly-trained police officer/executioner for the Fascist theocratic government of a mid-21st century police state. Once he recovers his own emotions and realizes what monstrous society has been created in the name of peace and tranquility, he becomes a rebel himself and turns the tables on his former employers, killing the people send out to kill him and executing the head of the State Church.
"In the first years of the 21st century, a third World War broke out. Those of us who survived knew mankind could never survive a fourth; that our own volatile natures could simply no longer be risked. So we have created a new arm of the law: The Grammaton Cleric, whose sole task it is to seek out and eradicate the true source of man's inhumanity to man
- his ability to feel."
- Belgian film The Alzheimer's Case, also known as De Zaak Alzheimer and Memory of a Killer features this after the main character refuses to kill a child prostitute.
- The short film Talking Dessert.
- Telefon (1977). Charles Bronson plays a KGB agent sent to stop a Renegade Russian who has stolen a list of Manchurian Agents that could be used to start World War Three. In order to ensure that word won't get out about this cock-up, his superiors order a female American Double Agent to kill Bronson once his mission is complete. Fortunately she's smart enough to realise that she'll also get the chop for knowing too much, and the two run off together at the end of the movie.
- In Bruges is an example where the assassin is targeted because Even Evil Has Standards: he accidentally killed a child with a stray bullet.
- Road to Perdition saw a hitman for an Irish gang hunted by the Mob after his ex-partner and boss's son kills his wife and son; of course this causes him to go on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge against the Mob.
- Gomorra (2008). Two teenage hoodlums have been running out of control in the local Camorra clan's territory, despite warnings from the mob boss to behave themselves or die. They ignore this warning, stealing a cache of weapons hidden by the Camorra. An older mobster points out they'll have trouble with the police if two youngsters are killed publicly, so he approaches them with a deal — for 10,000 euros they return the weapons and kill a mobster who has betrayed him. The youths follow their target to an isolated location, only to be murdered in an ambush and their bodies carted away by a bulldozer to be disposed of.
- Wesley Gibson and his father, Cross in Wanted but that was an Evil Plan by his shady employer.
- The nameless protagonist in Yojimbo (and the remake, A Fistful of Dollars) leaves the first family he hires himself out to because he overhears them plotting to kill him when the job is finished, to avoid paying him.
- Jeff Costello from Le Samourai, the French movie that inspired The Killer. He is seen leaving the scene of his latest hit, picked up by the police and questioned. His clients decide to kill him before he can implicate them.
- Partially subverted in the 1969 film The Assassination Bureau in that the head of the titular agency willingly accepts a contract on his own head as a challenge to weed out the unworthy elements within his organization.
- The International features a Mega Corp. that's rather too fond of You Have Outlived Your Usefulness. The fact that their Contract on the Hitman shows its hand before "The Consultant" manages to kill the protagonist saves the target's life, resulting in a fairly awesome Enemy Mine Blast Out in the Guggenheim.
- George Clooney's character in The American ends up with one of these after deciding he'll quit the business after his last job which is simply to build a gun for another female assassin. The employer of both him and the woman decides to have him be the first person terminated by the woman after the gun is completed, but she can't find a safe time to do so. He rigs the gun to misfire in a moment of conscience, thus killing the other assassin after her attempt on his life. He is then wounded in a shootout with his former employer and his fate is left ambiguous.
- An amateur falls victim to this trope in the 1976 film Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Strip club owner Cosmo Vittelli reluctantly accepts the title contract to pay off his own heavy gambling debt. The "bookie" is actually an elderly triad leader, and once he's dead the contractors decide the hit is a faux pas that has to be covered up by eliminating the hitman.
- Vlad Taltos in Steven Brust's Dragaera series finds himself in this situation after a few books in the series.
- The David Morrell (creator of Rambo) novels The Brotherhood of the Rose and Fraternity of the Stone, both involving US government hitmen. In the first novel the assassin kills a friend of the President in what he assumes is a CIA-sanctioned killing, but it turns out his controller is meddling in politics — in order to protect himself the assassin is framed as a double-agent and slated for termination. In Fraternity of the Stone the killer has a mental breakdown when he sees he's orphaned a young boy in a bombing (the same thing happened to him) and so doesn't do the second hit on his list, angering his employers who needed the two killings to happen close together.
- Rachel Morgan of The Hollows novels isn't technically a assassin but a runner, a combination bounty hunter, private detective and law enforcement agent. When she tries to quit her job at Inderlander Security and go independent they put a death mark on her to make an example to other employees who may be thinking of quitting.
- Inverted in the Burke novels by Andrew Vachss. Sociopathic hitman Wesley is given a contract by The Mafia to kill a martial arts expert, but Burke kills him first. The mob then decide there's no point in paying Wesley, so he decides to Kill Them All.
- This method of dealing with unneeded hitmen is used by the Big Bad of the novel Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre, and the protagonist uses his knowledge of this trope to his benefit later in the story.
- Mort: Death comforts the ghost of an assassinated king with the knowledge that he has an appointment with the King's assassin later on. Apparently it isn't a good idea to let someone skilled in poisons and capable of contracting a killer prepare you a packed lunch.
Live Action TV
- Done memorably on Angel, much to the frustration of the contractors:
This is getting ridiculous. The first assassin kills the second assassin, sent to kill the first assassin, who didn't assassinate anyone until we hired the second assassin to assassinate the first assassin.
- Specifically, Wolfram and Hart hired Faith to kill Angel. She then made a Heel-Face Turn and Angel gave her sanctuary in his apartment. Wolfram and Hart then hire a demon to kill Faith, but Faith kills it instead.
- Parodied in a Kids in the Hall sketch, where a hitman is contracted to take himself out.
- Non-lethal variant: in the pilot to Werewolf, a bounty hunter breaks off contact with his boss to track Eric across the country. His frustrated employer grouses that he's going to have to hire a bounty hunter to locate his bounty hunter.
- In the Queen of Swords episode "Duel With a Stranger", Montoya hires a swordsman to kill the Queen, planning to have Grisham murder the swordsman so he won't have to pay him.
- In Kidnapped, the ruthless conspiracy that employs the Accountant gets ticked off and decides to have him killed after he botches a couple of hits. The cops scoop him up first, though, so they only manage to kill his wife instead. This somewhat upsets him.
- The beginning of the series Matrix (no relation to The Matrix, despite also co-starring Carrie-Anne Moss) has its protagonist, mob hitman Steven Matrix, nearly being killed by another hitperson who had been hired to take him out.
- The episode "Under Covers" of NCIS had a twist on this. When two married assassins die in a car wreck, Tony and Ziva take their place to find out who the target was at a Marine event. Later in the episode, we find out it was a set-up to kill the assassins.
- Ellery Queen: In "The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep", the killer provides the police the location of a hitman who had bungled an earlier attempt on the victim, knowing that the hitman will shoot it out with the police rather than being taken alive. The killer does this because the hitman can identify them as the successful murderer.
Myth And Legend
- Norse Mythology: The dwarf Fáfnir turns himself into a dragon to protect his cursed gold from his brother, Regin. So, Regin hires Sigurd to kill Fáfnir, but then Sigurd learns from the birds that Regin plans to kill him, too. Now that's Older Than Print for your ass!
- Someone intended to assassinate the Buddha by sending one guy after him; then to remove the assassin by hiring two hitmen to wipe him out, then two each for those guys, then two more for those guys. He must have reckoned that by the time it got to the fourth level, none of the surviving ones would know anything about the first assassin's mission.
- A similar legend to the above is told about the Greek tyrant and sage Periander. In his case, the first target was himself - he wanted to save his grave from being desecrated. So the first assassins killed him and buried him on the spot, and by the time the last ones were done, no one knew where the grave is.
- Toyed with in Dick Tracy. In one story arc, Big Boy Caprice, now dying, decides to get revenge on a thorn in his side, Dick Tracy. So he puts a million dollar contract on Dick Tracy's life; but the younger folk running the crime syndicate now tell the villain that Dick Tracy wasn't worth it and so they put a million dollar contract of their own on anyone who accepts the Dick Tracy contract.
- In Macbeth, the title character hires two men to murder Banquo, and then another one to keep an eye on the other two in case they betray him. The third murderer never ends up killing the first two (except in Polanski's movie version), but the intent is still there.
- Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter is about two hitmen, Ben and Gus, waiting for their next assignment. No prizes will be awarded for guessing who Ben is ordered to kill.
- In the game Hitman: Silent Assassin, one mission, which has you revisiting the site of a previous mission, turns out to be a setup from your current employers, who are trying to 'terminate' 47 - using another Hitman, codenamed 17. 47 was both surprised - since he thought he'd killed all of his 'brothers' already - and somewhat insulted that they'd think an inferior model had any chance of taking him out.
- Somewhat related is the plot for Hitman: Blood Money, in which a major part of the plot involves a rival contract agency called "The Franchise", who is killing off all of the agents from 47's agency. Towards the end, only 47 and his contract informer, Diana, are still alive. They split the remaining money and part their separate ways. However, Diana seems to be a turncoat for the Franchise, and "kills" 47 to fulfill the contract on the guy's head by the Franchise's Corrupt Corporate Executive (he wanted 47's clone DNA as a starting point for his own super-assassin cloning scheme). This turns out to be a ploy by her to weed out the one behind the Agency's liquidation, and she revives 47 just in time to finish the bloke off.
- In Hitman: Absolution, after 47 goes rogue Benjamin Travis sends an Agency hit-squad known as "The Saints" after 47, who ambush him while he's resting in a motel.
- In the Fighting Game Eternal Champions, this is how the character Shadow died - her organization realized she wanted to turn against them, and thus "gave" her a trip off the 100th floor of their headquarters.
- This is the premise of the game Bushido Blade; your character is trying to escape from the clan of assassins he or she belongs to, and the rest of the cast wants you dead.
- In Dead or Alive, Ayane is required to kill her half-sister Kasumi as desertion from a ninja clan is punishable by death.
- This is the entire plotline of Bayman. After being hired by Victor Donovan to assassinate Fame Douglas, Donovan decides that he has outlived his usefulness and makes him a wanted man as his "payment".
- The game Shadow Warrior has Lo Wang, the title character, being targeted by his former employer Zilla when he quit his corporation after learning of Zilla's plan to rule Japan with creatures summoned from the dark side. Being a martial arts style First-Person Shooter, it soon becomes a quest to avenge Wang's master, who is killed by Zilla's men.
- Tsukihime: After Kiri Nanaya, the head of the Nanaya clan of demon/demon-hybrid assassins, retires and leaves the protection of the organization he belonged to, Makihisa Tohno and Kouma Kishima lead an attack on them. After a prolonged battle, Kiri is killed by Kouma, who goes on to slaughter everyone else except Shiki. Both were motivated by personal vendetta: Kouma was attacked and had one of his eyes blinded by Kiri when he was younger during one of his missions, and Makihisa is implied to have been the client for that hit, who Kiri tried and failed to kill out of impulse.
- Depending on who you ally with at the end, or allying with no one at all, the final missions of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines turns into this. The Ventrue Prince, after sending you on dirty jobs, will have a Blood Hunt called on you, and you'll be under attack from vampires. Unless you go out of your way to get in his good graces, you'll have to fight your way from ground floor rent-a-mooks all the way up to his Big Bad lieutenant.
- A Crazy Awesome version of this trope is pretty much the plotline in both No More Heroes games.
- Outerlight's games The Ship Murder Party and Bloody Good Time are based around this trope. Kill a specific target while avoiding your killer...which is harder than it sounds for a game without very many NPCs that share player appearance, because of the needs system. Don't fulfill your character's needs? You lose control and present your killer with a very vulnerable target.
- The Assassin's Creed Multiplayer is all about this. Each player is given the goal of assassinating specific players within an area filled with similar-looking NPCs. The player then must find and kill their target while avoiding assassination themselves.
- In Dragon Age: Origins, Zevran will be targeted by the Crows if the Warden spares him. While Master Ignatio doesn't act against Zevran, declaring him to be dead in his eyes, Zevran's old comrade Talesin will track him down and make him a final offer: rejoin the Crows or die. If Zevran's loyalty is high enough, he will fight against Talesin at your side. How Zevran's battle with the Crows is resolved depends on whether or not the Warden sacrifices himself/herself. If the Warden lives, Zevran will continue to fight and evade the Crows as best he can while living his life which is apparently canon in Dragon Age II. If the Warden dies, Zevran will return to Antiva and singlehandedly take over the Crows and become their new Grand Master. His epilogue questions whether this counts as a victory or a defeat.
- Done in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim during the Dark Brotherhood questline, when first Arnbjorn, and then the player character are sent after Cicero. Depending on whether you agree with the reasons for this or not, you can either do the deed, or just lie about the hit.
- Occurred in one story arc of Schlock Mercenary, with Bongo's squad of bounty hunters being employed to capture their previous coworker, Doyt/Haban, due to the highly classified gear that D/H was equipped with, which the UNS didn't want out of its control.
- Though Serge doesn't exactly have a heart of gold, this is the plot of Fracture, the first story from Zokusho Comics.
- In Batman Beyond, Curare is targeted by the League of Assassins for failing to carry out a contract (due to Batman's interference). She then turns the trope around on the League and hunts all of them down, causing the last surviving member to come to Gotham and blackmail Batman for help by hiding a bomb somewhere in the city and rigging it to explode if he fails to regularly input a code remotely. He doesn't survive. Curare is luckier, but still ends up in jail.
- In Adventure Time, Ice King sends a hitman, Scorcher, to go after Finn and Jake, without knowing full well what "hitman" actually means (he thinks it just means hitting, like punching them on the shoulder or something). Having realized his mistake, Ice King tries to get Scorcher to stop, and when nothing else works, he hires a second hitman to kill him. Scorcher quickly dispatches the other hitman, leaving Ice King back to square one.
- A TV special on Richard Kuklinski (aka "The Iceman") explained how he once committed an assassination with two accomplices. He then brought one of the accomplices along with him to kill the other accomplice (he poisoned him and when he didn't die fast enough he strangled him with a phone cord). The other accomplice had a blinding flash of the obvious and realized that he was next.