Saturday, April 8, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: THE ASSIGNMENT (2017)

(France - 2017)

Directed by Walter Hill. Written by Walter Hill and Denis Hamill. Cast: Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony LaPaglia, Caitlin Gerard, Ken Kirzinger, Darryl Quon, Caroline Chan, Brent Langdon, Adrian Hough, Terry Chen, Paul McGillion. (R, 94 mins)

At 77 years of age and in his sixth decade in the movie industry, the great Walter Hill is far beyond the point of needing to prove himself to anyone. He works very infrequently these days--2013's underrated BULLET TO THE HEAD was his first big-screen gig in over a decade, though he did direct the acclaimed 2006 AMC miniseries BROKEN TRAIL. But in his prime, Hill was one of the giants. His incredible mid '70s to early '80s run that included classics like 1975's HARD TIMES, 1978's THE DRIVER, 1979's THE WARRIORS, 1980's THE LONG RIDERS, 1981's SOUTHERN COMFORT, and 1982's 48 HRS remains one of the best streaks a director could ever have. Even later, slightly lesser films that don't quite scale the heights of Hill in his heyday--1984's STREETS OF FIRE, 1987's EXTREME PREJUDICE, 1988's RED HEAT, 1989's JOHNNY HANDSOME, 1992's TRESPASS--still have those distinctly cynical. macho, tough guy Hill elements. Hill never gets mentioned in the same breath as the likes of auteurs that flourished in the '70s, like Scorsese, Coppola, or De Palma, but in his own way, he's every bit as significant to that era of Hollywood moviemaking. And that's just one reason why it's hard to even write about THE ASSIGNMENT, Hill's latest and arguably worst film. He took his name off of 2000's big-budget sci-fi bomb SUPERNOVA, with credit going to the non-existent "Thomas Lee" (a disgruntled Hill walked off the movie when filming wrapped, while Jack Sholder handled reshoots and, of all people, Francis Ford Coppola was pressed into service to edit the mess into something releasable), and while SUPERNOVA was indeed terrible, THE ASSIGNMENT might be worse.

Originally titled TOMBOY: A REVENGER'S TALE and shown at last year's Toronto Film Festival as (RE)ASSIGNMENT, THE ASSIGNMENT made some waves for its potentially offensive handling of transgender issues and its depiction of gender confirmation as punishment. It opens with a framing story in a Mendocino psych ward where disgraced quack surgeon Dr. Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver) is kept in a strait-jacket while she's interviewed by psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub). Galen's job is to determine if Jane is competent to stand trial after she's the sole survivor of a brutal massacre in the basement of her mansion, where she's set up an experimental surgery ward where she's been working since losing her medical license two years earlier. Dr. Jane tells Dr. Galen of the events that led to her being apprehended, and it involves a ruthless hit man named Frank Kitchen. Three years earlier, Kitchen was hired to whack Jane's sleazy, drug-addled strip club manager brother Sebastian (Adrian Hough) before being double-crossed by crime boss Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia), who delivered him to Dr. Jane. Jane proceeded to perform gender reassignment surgery on Frank, both as revenge for Sebastian's murder and to "liberate you from the macho prison you've been living in." Frank (Michelle Rodriguez plays Frank pre-and-post-op) wakes up in a locked room in a shitbag hotel OLDBOY-style, with a taunting tape recording of Jane explaining what she did. Frank gets out of the hotel and reconnects with Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), a nurse-by-day, stripper-by-night with whom he had a one-nighter shortly before being screwed over by the ironically-monikered Honest John. Frank devises a convoluted revenge plot to get back at everyone, from Honest John to various Russian and Asian mobsters and finally the psychotic Dr. Jane, before planning to run off with Johnnie, who falls for the new Frank much like she did the old.

There's no way to sugarcoat it: THE ASSIGNMENT is a mess. Barely propelled by uninspired and now-cliched '80s synth cues by none other than 76-year-old disco producing icon Giorgio Moroder, it's little more than series of framing devices, with Dr. Jane telling her story to Dr. Galen and then with an on-the-run Frank setting up a camera in a skeezy hotel room and filming herself telling her story, leading to two simultaneous series of flashbacks that end up working at cross purposes. Hill also pointlessly and inconsistently uses some comic book panels in some scene transitions--much like the changes he made for his little-loved director's cut of THE WARRIORS--and because he seems to like those comic book shout-outs so much, that's ultimately the most "Walter Hill" thing about THE ASSIGNMENT. BULLET TO THE HEAD wasn't top-shelf Hill but it at least felt like a vintage Walter Hill film, and had an inspired Sylvester Stallone-Jason Momoa axe fight to keep things interesting. Like John Carpenter with his forgettable 2011 comeback THE WARD and Dario Argento with his clueless 2012 take on DRACULA, Hill brings none of his signature style and personality to this cheap-looking B-movie that's so utterly generic that it could've been made by any journeyman DTV hack. Throw Keoni Waxman's, Steven C. Miller's, or Ernie Barbarash's name on this and the only difference would be your drastically lowered expectations. Working from a script co-written by Denis Hamill (Pete Hamill's younger brother and the screenwriter of such beloved classics as 1985's TURK 182! and 1987's CRITICAL CONDITION) that he's had sitting around since the late '70s and wasn't smart enough to put directly into the paper shredder when he dusted it off after 35 years, Hill doesn't even pepper the film with his customary smartass humor or even a visit to Torchy's. It's dour and dull, with asides and threads that serve no purpose (the comic book panels are annoying, I'm not really sure what the Asian and Russian mobsters had to do with anything, and much is made of Dr. Jane's Edgar Allan Poe obsession, but it never leads anywhere), and of course it ends up in a dark, gloomy abandoned warehouse that houses Dr. Jane's SAW-like dungeon of demented surgical procedures.

A story insane enough to fuse elements of film noir and body horror should be a wild ride and an instant cult classic, but THE ASSIGNMENT is drab, depressing, and borderline incoherent. Weaver tries to have some fun with her role, looking a lot like an uptight warden in a 1980s women-in-prison movie (of course, she's got some secret kinks involving a hulking nurse assistant played by Ken Kirzinger), but her long, bitch-on-wheels monologues are poorly-written and grow tiresome, and it's ultimately another example of the limited opportunities for aging actresses when this is what a 67-year-old, three-time Oscar-nominee has to settle for if she wants a lead. Weaver's AVATAR co-star Rodriguez seems trapped in a pair of unplayable roles, but tries to give it her all and seems legitimately committed to this lost cause, whether she's baring all after the surgery or walking around with a huge prosthetic dick before it. She looks like a bearded Sal Mineo in her scenes as a pre-op Frank, and post-op, she's just doing a more forced-than-usual version of her glowering, tough-talking Michelle Rodriguez act. Given how his older classics have set a standard for tough-guy ballbusting and he-man masculinity, THE ASSIGNMENT could've been a sly, transgender commentary on such attitudes and its depictions in the action and thriller genres, but once the central gimmick is established, Hill has nothing more to say about it, going for some early and cheap shock value (Rodriguez strutting around with a massive, dangling cock) before switching to autopilot and opting to make the kind of forgettable, Redbox-ready Lionsgate dump job you've seen a hundred times before, with 99 of them done better. As far as any controversy is concerned, the embarrassingly bad THE ASSIGNMENT didn't offend me as a supporter of the transgender community. It offended me as a longtime supporter of Walter Hill.

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