By Preston Wilder
It gives no pleasure to slam The Assignment. It’s a shame that the film is a dud, for two reasons. The first is because it’s directed by 76-year-old Walter Hill, whose authorship of a half-dozen terse, stylish action films in the late 70s and early 80s – especially The Driver, The Warriors and Southern Comfort – guarantees him an honoured place in the annals of film history. (He was also among the producers of Alien and Deadwood.) The second reason is because it’s been attacked as ‘transphobic’ by the overly sensitive, and it would’ve been nice to stand up for it. Spoilers follow, though you’ll surely guess the premise – even without having seen the cast-list – the moment you clock our hero Frank Kitchen’s decidedly feminine features, behind the beard and prosthetics.
The film is problematic, and comes bearing scars from a critical mauling. It’s even confused about its title (it’s being marketed as The Assignment, but the title on the print I watched says Revenger), a sure sign of a film that’s been kicked around. Still, the charge of being offensive doesn’t really hold water. There’s a world of difference – and the movie acknowledges the difference – between a transsexual who requests surgery in order to fulfil a lifelong dream of becoming a woman and what happens to Frank, who wakes up as a woman (both roles are played by Michelle Rodriguez) after totally involuntary surgery forced upon him by megalomaniac Dr. Jane (Sigourney Weaver). It’s only natural that (s)he should rant and rave and try to get the operation reversed, and no disrespect to those seeking real-life gender reassignment.
What’s borderline-offensive, however – or at least exploitative – is how little Hill does with male Frank’s transition into female Frank, which is treated as a threadbare excuse for a bloody revenge spree. Not only is this dull, it doesn’t even make any sense. It’s unclear, to put it mildly, why our heroine pumps henchman after henchman full of lead without also trying to pump them for leads on the doctor’s identity – but of course the real problem is that limiting the plot to revenge action is extremely reductive. What about showing how Frank sees the world in a different way as a woman – maybe feels more vulnerable, maybe becomes less belligerent, maybe starts to treat his girlfriend differently, maybe even starts to enjoy it? Even Rob Schneider in The Hot Chick did more than this.
The point, after all, seems to be that Dr. Jane performed this unwanted surgery as a favour to Frank, liberating him from his “macho prison” (he’s a hitman who once killed her brother) and offering a chance at redemption – though she’s later forced to admit that the experiment failed, since he’s just as ruthless as a woman. We know all this because Hill, having failed to do much with the Rodriguez section of the plot, pads out the movie with talky, long-winded dialogues between Dr. Jane – now in a loony bin – and Dr. Galen (Tony Shalhoub) who’s supposed to be evaluating her and dishes out reams of needless exposition. “Do you feel relieved now you’ve gotten all that off your shoulders?” asks Jane after one particularly long exegesis of the Plot So Far – and it looks for a moment like the film might be cheekily aware of its own clumsiness, only to subside into inertia again.
To be fair, it has its moments. Some of the early scenes are richly stylish, with splashes of colour, lens flares, shots through railings, etc – but it’s almost like Hill used two separate cinematographers (or more likely got bored halfway through), because the rest of the film is quite drab. Ideas do get bounced around – deviancy, kinkiness, “gender is identity” – but nothing really comes of it. At some point, even fans may be forced to stop giving Hill the benefit of the doubt (since he is, after all, Walter Hill) and admit that The Assignment is a flat, muddled movie.
Never mind political correctness, it’s hard to even know what the filmmakers were thinking half the time. Why do scenes come with detailed captions giving their precise location, when in fact that’s entirely irrelevant? Why does Dr. Galen keep insisting that Frank Kitchen is a figment of Dr. Jane’s imagination (raising hopes of some last-minute twist) when in fact he patently isn’t? Is the wordy tangent on Edgar Allan Poe’s theory of art – he apparently thought it should be “indifferent to moral and political considerations” – a case of Hill pre-empting the critics who’d judge him on the film’s social relevance? Speaking of which, what about the weird McGuffin at the heart of this odd, misguided fiasco, viz. the idea that turning a male killer into a woman would cure him of his bloodlust? Are we claiming that hitmen only kill because they’re male? Is murder ‘a man thing’ now? I’m offended!
DIRECTED BY Walter Hill
STARRING Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub
US 2016 95 mins