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In a cheap hotel in downtown Los Angeles, successful, middle-aged professional killer Arthur Bishop, the son of a deceased gang leader, observes a small apartment across the street, taking numerous photographs with a long-range lens. Arthur later spends time studying the photographs and monitoring the activities of the elderly man who lives in the apartment. Through skill and perfect timing, Arthur booby traps the man's stove to explode and kill him, thus making his death seem to be the result of an accidental gas explosion. Later, at his expensive, modern home in the hills above Los Angeles, Arthur burns all of his research documents, listens to classical music and studies his favorite painting. He then receives a phone call from agitated Harry McKenna, a member of a crime association who used to work for Arthur's father, asking for a visit. Because of their personal relationship, and the fact that the leaders of the association still holds Arthur's late father in a place of reverence, Harry, who is out of favor with the association, asks Arthur for his help. Before leaving Harry's estate, Arthur meets Harry's son Steve, a cocky young man who enjoys a playboy lifestyle. At home, Arthur receives a special delivery package that contains photographs and information on Harry, who is his next "mark." After studying the documents and surveying a cliff near the ocean, where he monitors his heart rate following a brisk run up the hill, Arthur receives a phone call from the man instructing him to "go ahead, anytime." Soon Arthur is driving to the cliff near the ocean with the grateful Harry, who thinks that Arthur has arranged a meeting for him. While Harry walks down to the shore, Arthur drives to the top of the cliff, then shoots, but deliberately misses, the terrified Harry. Arthur then calls out to Harry, saying that the meeting was a set up and urging him to run back to the car. While Arthur continues to shoot near misses, Harry, thinking that Arthur is trying to save him, struggles up the cliff, even though he is experiencing severe chest pains. Once at the car, Harry realizes that Arthur has set him up and tells him to "finish it," which Arthur does by placing his hand over Harry's mouth. At Harry's funeral, Steve talks with Arthur and asks for a ride home. At the McKenna home, where a wild party is in progress, Steve admits that, like his father, he is tired of his leeching friends. When Steve's girl friend, Louise, calls and threatens suicide, Arthur agrees to go along with Steve to her house, where she calmly cuts her wrists with a razor blade, insisting that Steve will never let her die. More than an hour later, when she has become cold from the gradual blood loss, Steve indifferently throws his car keys to her and says that she can reach the sheriff's station in Malibu in fifteen minutes if she tries. Later, Arthur asks Steve if he would have let Louise die, but Steve will not reveal his feelings, prompting Arthur to comment that he has his own code. During the following weeks, Arthur spends his days training and relaxing. One day, while visiting Marineland, he passes out while looking at the fish tank. Although the emergency room intern does not know if the incident was the result of physical or psychological causes, he suggests that Arthur have some tests, but Arthur declines. One morning, Arthur wakes up to discover Steve sleeping in his car in the driveway. The men talk, and over the next weeks spend time together, with Steve constantly questioning Arthur about his relationship to the association, and Arthur refusing to admit to anything, even though Steve is anxious to be involved. Arthur takes Steve to a karate match in which Yamoto, an older master from Japan, is pitted against Kori, a younger, more aggressive American opponent. When the younger man makes an illegal jab at the master, after the match has ended, Yamoto pummels Kori, almost beating him to death. That night, Arthur finally relents and tells Steve that he is a "mechanic," a professional killer, and would be willing to take Steve on as an associate to help with some of the more complicated jobs. Steve happily agrees and spends the next several weeks going through extensive training, impressing Arthur with his skill and nerve. After Arthur receives a package with information on his next mark, he includes Steve in the plan, which involves killing someone in a seemingly impregnable estate. By following the mark and lip-reading conversations observed with a telephoto lens, Arthur learns that a chicken delivery van will arrive at the estate a few days later. After ambushing the van and putting Steve in the driver's place, they gain access to the estate and push through the door, but there are so many bodyguards that their mark is able to escape on his motorbike. Arthur chases him through the hills on a bike he had hidden in the van and eventually maneuvers the mark over a cliff, where he dies in a fiery crash. Worried about the problems with the kill, Steve is assured by Arthur that killing is not always predictable. Back at his house, Arthur is summoned for a meeting with the man at his lavish estate, where the man expresses his displeasure over Arthur taking in a partner, Harry's son, without consulting the association. Arthur defends the choice, insisting he makes decisions about how he works. The man then gives Arthur a new assignment in Naples, saying that it must be done quickly in order to appease his associates. Arthur then goes to Steve's house, and when he secretly looks through Steve's desk he is stunned to find a dossier of photographs and papers about him. For the next few days, simultaneous to their preparations for Italy, Steve furtively studies Arthur's dossier, while Arthur creates a dossier on Steve. When the pair arrive in Italy, they stalk their mark and are frustrated that he does not follow a pattern. Still holding to his code of operation, Arthur refuses to do a quick hit and comes upon a plan whereby they will kill the mark where he is most vulnerable, on his yacht. He and Steve don scuba attire and swim to the yacht, but soon realize that they have been set up. After blowing up the yacht, Steve and Arthur drive along the winding Amalfi coast, followed by henchmen from the association, whom Arthur knows have been sent to kill him. With skill and cunning, Arthur and Steve are able to dispose of all of them. Back in Naples, after Arthur finishes packing, Steve offers him a glass of his favorite Neapolitan wine. Although suspicious, Arthur sniffs the glass, then drinks from it. Moments later, as Arthur begins to have pains, Steve reveals that he used a tasteless, odorless acid on the glass and that Arthur will be dead within a few moments, seemingly from a heart attack. When Arthur asks if it was because of Harry, Steve says "So you did that? I thought it was a heart attack," then says that he will chose his own marks and retorts "see Naples and die" before leaving Arthur writhing on the floor. Back in Los Angeles, Steve goes to Arthur's house, pleased that he has assumed Arthur's lifestyle, but when he enters his car, he finds a hand-written note from Arthur indicating that if Steve is reading the note, then Arthur is dead. The note adds that Steve has activated a thirteen-second trip wire and "Bang, you're dead." As a panicked Steve tries to leave the car, it explodes, instantly killing him.