THE ASSIGNMENT (2016) review
written by: Denis Hamill and Walter Hill
produced by: Saïd Ben Saïd and Michel Merkt
directed by: Walter Hill
rated: R (for graphic nudity, violence, sexuality, language and drug use)
runtime: 95 min.
U.S. release date: April 7, 2017 (limited)
From the get-go, Walter Hill’s “The Assignment” is ridiculous, a stupid movie that wants to be provocative, while reveling in what it thinks is a revenge-noir, paying homage to low-grade B-movies, but it’s just simply utter trash and a waste of talent. Everyone here is culpable for making this bad movie, yes even the actors – after all, they said “yes” to this crap screenplay. There’s no excuses. Here’s the thing though – I knew this going in, but sometimes my curiosity finds me wondering just how bad a movie can be. With such an endeavor, my curiosity rarely pays off.
This revenge actioner was once titled “(Re)Assignment” – as in ‘gender reassignment’ (making it a gender reassignment action flick) – which is how it premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it would be predominately (and justifiably) lambasted by critics. Word-of-mouth spread quickly that this was a steaming pile after Toronto and now, with a limited release in the States upon us (it’s showing in one theater in Chicago, but can be rented on online), I can attest and confirm that such a response is warranted. This is a movie that is aiming for B-movie schlock that hopes to one day become a late-night cult classic. Not a chance.
“The Assignment” fails immediately as it introduces us to the character of Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez), a supposedly tough and lethal San Francisco hitman, who gets on the wrong side of local mob guy, Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia) and more importantly, a rogue plastic surgeon known as The Doctor (Sigourney Weaver), when he takes out two different individuals who were close to each of these characters.
We learn that a bit later, but the first of many elements in this movie to swallow is a bearded Michelle Rodriguez supposedly playing a man. This ejects us out of the movie right away. Besides the fact that she’s no Cate Blanchett, for some reason co-writer/director Hill and company presume that viewers will buy Rodriguez as a man. Sure, she’s recognized by the tomboy-type characters she’s played since her dazzling debut in 2000’s “Girlfight”, which she carried on to the “Resident Evil” and “Fast and Furious” movies, but in those movies Rodriguez is playing a tough woman. Here, viewers will know this is the actress in an unconvincing beard.
This look isn’t just unconvincing because we know it’s Rodriguez, it’s unconvincing because it looks like the kind of bad fake beard and make-up job you’d find from a local Halloween costume shop. I don’t know where such a look would be convincing or who would be convinced by it, which is probably why Hill has to reiterate the look by including a scene where a naked Rodriguez walks out of a shower, hairy chest and penis in full display as she’s tracked by a waist-level camera. It’s the kind of scene you wish you hadn’t seen and left me wondering how anyone involved thought that was a good idea. Then again, they’re trying to pass off a bearded Rodriguez as a man.
It’s one of several provocative and exploitative moments to distract from a dumb and ridiculous screenplay from Hill and Denis Hammil, “best known” for his screenplays of “Critical Condition” and “Turk 182”, a couple of 80s gems. Sure, Hill has made some great classics, such as “The Warriors”, “48 Hours” and “Streets of Fire” and even some deep cut gems like “Southern Comfort”, but this movie makes his mediocre sci-fi yarn “Supernova” from 2000 seem re-watchable. Hill’s latest serves as a reminder that die-hard loyalists can suffer. Hamill and Hill have been working this screenplay over since the late 70s, when it was named “Tomboy: A Revenger’s Tale” (oof), so it’s baffling how this eventually got greenlit.
The gimmick of the movie comes when psychotic The Doctor has Frank apprehended and performs an unwanted gender reassignment surgery on the elusive killer as a form of revenge. She also sees it as giving him a shot at redemption and somehow ridding him of his lust for violence, misogamy and homicide. You can guess Frank doesn’t see it that way when he wakes up in a seedy hotel room a she, with female breasts and genitalia. She sets off to take out anyone who stands in her way as she ruthlessly makes her way back to The Doctor in order to enact her own brand of revenge.
If anything, “The Assignment” most resembles Hill’s 1989 flick, “Johnny Handsome”, which also involved a criminal protagonist receiving an appearance-altering surgical procedure. This is a movie that could’ve worked if it cared to deal with the psychological, sexual and social ramifications of an unwanted sex-change and the power-play of someone mad enough to enact such a cruel and reprehensible act. Weaver, a longtime from of Hill since he’s served as a producer on all the “Alien” movies she was in, tries with all her might to nibble at whatever she has to work with, but she seems tired and perhaps knows she’s been given refuse from the trash bin.
We first meet Weaver’s Dr. Rachel Kay (I don’t believe her full name is ever revealed in – so, thanks Wikipedia), in a psychiatric facility, where she is imprisoned after she is deemed responsible for multiple murders, not to mention her dubious record as a surgeon. Wrapped up in a straight jacket, she endures interrogation sessions with Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub), often getting the upper-hand of a psychiatrist who’s losing interest and doesn’t buy the fact that this character she continues to mention, Frank Kitchen, exists. Weaver’s character could’ve been much more intriguing and formidable if she we could’ve witnessed less of her fondness for Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe, that gets tiring fast and instead saw more psychological domineering of Shalhoub’s doctor. Instead we get mustache-twirling and unintimidating posturing from a character that could’ve been as unpredictable as Hannibal Lecter.
“The Assignment” is either insulting or boring its audience at every turn. For a genre action flick, the action is boring and unmemorable. At no point does Rodriguez’s Frank prove herself as a threatening presence or proficient killer – she’s apparently never heard of head shots and is more concerned with the sound of her own bullets. It doesn’t help that Rodriguez employs a heavy New Yawk accent for Frank, as she narrates (explains) her every move, but we then get to see her record a video recounting her path of revenge, yet it’s uncertain who the intended audience is for such a production. We’re also supposed to believe that a nurse that Frank had recently hooked up with when she was a bearded dude, would get together with him again now that he’s a woman, even allowing her to stay with her for a while. It becomes all too obvious that this character, Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard) is not all that she seems to be, kind of like the other women in this movie.
I really can’t think of anything redeemable about this flick. Not even a Ry Cooder soundtrack can save it. It’s definitely not as controversial or offensive to the transgender community as many are making it out to be. Maybe it would be if it was a better movie, but this movie tries to mask its awfulness in a genre action/thriller skin that never quite fits. I don’t know if gender reassignment is or ever will be any kind of subgenre and I can’t say I’ve seen a whole lot of movies where unwanted surgeries like this were performed. That being said, check out Pedro Almodovar‘s extraordinary “The Skin I Live In” from 2011 as an example of how to do it right.
RATING: 1/2 star