Hardboiled graphic-novel pastiche is the big idea behind The Assignment, which stars Michelle Rodriguez as Frank Kitchen, a hitman who becomes a hitwoman after his enemies perform some non-elective gender re-assignment (Re-Assignment was a working title, as was Tomboy) on him/her. As you might expect, revenge is served hot and cold, warm and wet.
Walter Hill directs. Yes, the same Walter Hill of 1980s hits like Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs and Brewster’s Millions, still in the game, still knocking out remarkably varied movies, still happy to get down and slum it, as he’s doing here – the film was made for very little money and Hill was well into his 70s when it was released in 2016.
It’s a labour of love. Hill had first read a script, Tom Boy, written by Denis Hamill, back in the 1970s, had optioned it, tried to turn it into a working script, failed, and had then forgotten about it until years later, when he picked it up again and turned it into a graphic novel. That proved to be the springboard to getting Hill’s filmic ambitions airborne again. Traces of that graphic novel remain in his treatment, which scores zero points for subtlety, but then subtlety isn’t what’s on his mind.
Back to that gender re-assignment. It was performed by a wackadoodle doctor – “I’m a doctor and an artist,” says Dr Rachel Jane (cool Sigourney Weaver resisting the urge to cackle) – from the insane asylum where she’s being interviewed by psychiatrist Dr Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub). She was working at the behest of a gang boss called Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia) and Frank Kitchen became the focus of Dr Jane’s flashing knives because… Honest John… her brother… something, something, something… it doesn’t matter.
Things you might want to know include how convincing Rodriguez is as a man. The beard, the hairy chest, the big dangling prosthetic penis (Hill swings his camera comically downwards to try and catch a glimpse as it flaps by), the raspy voice, they’re a good effort and Rodriguez obviously spent a long time in the make-up artist’s chair. But they have the effect of focusing attention on the bits of Rodriguez that remain indelibly feminine – the eyes, the mouth, the skin, the body shape, the muscle tone etc etc. A bit like the way slender, delicately featured Eddie Redmayne never looked more like a man than when he was gussied up as a transgender woman in The Danish Girl.
Masculinity is a theme Hill is perenially interested in and it’s obviously a theme in this film. The mad doctor dresses like a man and has a masculine-ish hair cut. Before the operation Frank gets close to a pretty nurse (Caitlin Gerard) called Johnnie. And of course Frank’s name is Frank. But really what Hill is interested in is aping the style of B movie thrillers.
Which makes the movie uncriticisable. When it’s bad, is that spot-on pastiche or just poor writing and film-making? Like, for instance, in the opening scene, when the good doctor is interviewing the bad doctor and between the two of them a whole dumpster-load of exposition is unloaded right there in front of us. It’s terrible. Unless it’s pastiche, in which case…
Also, the flashbacks. The mad doctor has hers. Frank has his/hers. Eventually even Johnnie, a very minor character, starts having flashbacks too. There are so many flashbacks in fact that at times the movie appears to be going backwards. It digresses itself to a standstill.
Whatever its faults, Rodriguez is great and throws herself at it with attitude blazing. It’s amazing that since she broke through in 2000’s Girlfight (another display of commitment on steroids) she’s had barely any leading roles. Barely any. It’s a scandal, really.
Rodriguez, Shalhoub, Weaver, LaPaglia – that’s a good cast – and Caitlin Gerard holds her own among them. But it isn’t really a good film, unless you see it as more as an exercise in hardboiled pastiche, which is what Hill claims it to be.
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