[Note: This is a repost of our review from the Toronto International Film Festival; (Re)Assignment has been re-titled The Assignment; it enters limited releas this weekend]
Brazenly tasteless and ridiculous, there are plenty of reasons to dismiss and dislike the latest feature from action movie pioneer Walter Hill. The Assignment is a project that he has apparently spent 40 years developing, but it feels more like something that should have been made all those decades ago rather than a project that needed time to percolate. Yet there’s something charmingly sleazy about this absolutely batshit insane project as well, criticizing itself through a fantastically evil performance by Sigourney Weaver in a way that suggests a certain level of self-aware camp in addition to cheap thrills. It’s tough to say if Hill did it all deliberately, yet it’s also equally tough to be bored by the results whether you like them or not.
Michelle Rodriguez stars as the amusingly and absurdly named Frank Kitchen, an assassin for hire with no conscience and little regard for life beyond its momentary pleasures. Rodriguez indeed plays a man initially, with full body prosthetics and a beard. It doesn’t last too long though. Kitchen’s soon set up for a job that doesn’t exist and kidnapped. The culprit is Dr. Rachel Kay (Weaver), a psychotic plastic surgeon who involuntarily turns Frank Kitchen into a women (yep, for realzies). There’s only one response to something like that: revenge, ideally flavored by bullets n’ bloodshed.
Yep, that’s really the premise of the movie and one that treats transgender politics as tastelessly as it sounds. The concept of gender reassignment surgery being used as a form of punishment is problematic at best. The script was protested before production and if/when the film is commercially released, that’ll happen again. Yet, Walter Hill is also indulging in a little “cake and eat it too” nose-thumbing antics here. After all, he is suggesting that someone’s gender is defined by their interior more than their exterior; he just took a deliberately exploitative path to get there.
As much as this movie is defined by the stripped down exploitation charms of the revenge genre, Hill also complicates the telling through varying perspectives and flashbacks. Much of the plot is dolled out throughWeaver’s villainess being prodded by psychiatrist Tony Shalhoub in a mental institution. Weaver’s performance is as coldly controlled as it is hysterically arch, toying with her persona and tossing in a little Dr. Lector for good measure. She’s the best part of the film and her character’s amusingly absurd obsession with classic literature leads her to delivering a few rants about the importance of separating stories from politics in a manner that feels like Hill preaching and partially apologizing. Or at least maybe that’s what he’s doing. It’s tough to say.
The Assignment is a film that is at once self-aware and somewhat lost. Hill uses plenty of the comic book frame scene transitions that he added to his director’s cut of The Warriors to both acknowledge the comic book roots of the film (he published a graphic novel before production) as well as insist that this is all fictitious pulp not meant to be take too seriously. There are tough guy monologues and bursts of violence that feel like self-parody and perhaps they are. But there are also scenes that seem to get laughs that were never intended. Maybe it’s a mix of both. Only Hill knows for sure.
Either way Rodriguez certainly plays it straight, completely removed from the sequences with Shalhoub and Weaver winking their way through the absurdity. When playing a man she looks right bug sounds so far off the mark it’s hard to take seriously. When she’s in down n’ dirty revenge mode, she cuts an imposing presence and does the noir anti-hero thing rather well. The terse shoot out and murder scenes are all handled just fine by Hill, despite obvious budgetary limitations. It’s clear the guy still has chops as a filmmaker, which makes the scenes when the movie departs into inexplicable insanity even more head-scratching.
There’s a chance that the joke is on us and in a few years The Assignment will play like self-aware camp released in an era too sensitive to notice. There’s also a chance that Hill simply went off the rails with this one and delivered something so wildly lurid and insane that it’s a jaw-dropper of ill-conceived bad taste. Either way, the flick is never boring for a second. The only question is whether or not it’s good. Quite frankly, I have no clue. But I also don’t care too much. I sure as hell won’t be able to scrape whatever the hell this was from my mind any time soon. That’s certainly an achievement of in and of itself.