THE ASSIGNMENT (2017)
Director: Walter Hill
Cast: Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Caitlin Gerard, Anthony LaPaglia, Terry Chen
MPAA Rating: (for graphic nudity, violence, sexuality, language and drug use)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 4/7/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 6, 2017
Inevitably, much will be made of the premise of The Assignment, which features a shadowy hitman being forced to undergo sex-reassignment surgery as a form of revenge for one of his many killings. It's almost too easy to read too much into this setup—transsexuality as a punishment, no attempt to understand the realities of transgenderism, the notion that female is inherently the weaker or more docile sex/gender (since the villain's hypothesis is that the hitman will redeem himself by living as a woman). It is, as the kids these days say, "problematic," and surely theses could be written on any or all of these problems with the premise.
Watching the movie is a different experience than just reading about the setup of its plot (Imagine that), and having seen The Assignment, I can say that its biggest sin isn't cultural, political, or anything of that nature. No, the biggest problem is that it's dull. The screenplay by Denis Hamill and director Walter Hill takes a controversial premise—for better or for worse—and turns it into a lifeless slog of exposition-heavy dialogue and bland action. The worst the villain does here is (obviously) kept off screen. Her most significant threat is boring someone to death with back story, philosophical musings, and selective quotes from famous writers.
The villain is Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), who at the start of the movie is being held in a psychiatric facility, awaiting possible court proceedings on multiple counts of murder. She insists that the shadowy hitman is responsible for the killings, but her psychiatrist Dr. Galen (Tony Shalhoub) is skeptical of the hired assassin's actual existence. For the remainder of the movie, their conversations basically go like this—Kay insisting the killer is real while Galen questions the assertion.
That is to say that those discussion go as such whenever Kay (who has her own gender identity issues—none of them addressed beyond the fact that she wears a suit and has a "masculine" attitude toward sex) isn't telling the story of the movie's anti-hero Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez), the hitman in question. He killed Kay's shiftless brother (Adrian Hough) a few years ago. In case one was wondering, yes, Rodriguez plays the male version of Frank, complete with a fake beard, a rigged-and-hairy chest-piece, and—as Hill makes sure we see after a shower scene—another type of obvious prosthetic. Take the following as you will, but no matter how gruffly she speaks, Rodriguez does not make a convincing man.
This remains an issue, because the movie's philosophy is that Frank remains a man, even after the surgery and a regimen of hormones, because he believes he is one. It's understandable but still strange how often Hamill and Hill seem to apologize for their own premise. It's understandable because they've created a psychological, political, and cultural entanglement with the setup, to be sure. Instead of actually exploring the ramifications of the setup, though, they offer the current understanding of gender—that identity is, to a significant extent, a matter of feeling, not necessarily physicality—in a few of scenes that exist to say that, while this particular situation is unique, the screenwriters "get it" when it comes to transgender issues.
It's awkward, not only because of the insistence that Frank's transformation is purely cosmetic (which opens up a whole new can of worms in a broader sense of the issue), but also because it results in more scenes of characters providing exposition, instead of characterization or specific ideas. When the screenplay isn't dumping this information, it's piling on plot in the form of Frank going after a criminal organization led by "Honest" John (Anthony LaPaglia), who can point Frank in Kay's direction (Frank relays his story by speaking directly to a camera). The movie's presentation of violence is simply a way to end a scene that has run its course, without much ado or any form of style.
There are two ways of thinking when it comes to material like this: Either the filmmakers have to go for it, no matter the controversy or repercussions, or they probably shouldn't have bothered. The Assignment definitely doesn't go for it as a subversive, backwards, compassionate, or thoughtful exploration of gender identity. I guess that leaves us with the second option.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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