The Assignment * ½ / *****
Directed by: Walter Hill.
Written by: Denis Hamill and Walter Hill.
Starring: Michelle Rodriguez (Frank Kitchen / Tomboy), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Rachel Jane), Tony Shalhoub (Dr. Ralph Galen), Caroline Chan (Ting Li), Caitlin Gerard (Johnnie), Anthony LaPaglia (Honest John Hartunian), Terry Chen (Dr. Lin), Ken Kirzinger (Nurse Albert Becker), Paul McGillion (Paul Wincott).
Veteran filmmaker Walter Hill is a favorite among many auteurists – but he’s a filmmaker for me that I wonder what I’m missing. He has an undeniable talent for staging action sequences – or he at least did earlier in his career, in films like The Warriors or Southern Comfort. But his best film – of what I’ve seen – is the movie star vehicle 48 Hours, which teamed up Nick Nolte and a young Eddie Murphy in what has become a prototypical action/buddy comedy. To say his career has been uneven would be an understatement. Other than directing the first episode of the brilliant Deadwood, Hill hasn’t done much that I’ve liked in a good 20 years.
His most recent film, The Assignment, has been called offensive by many in the LGBTQ community – many, likely, as Hill started, have not seen the film. If they had, the film itself probably would not have convinced them it wasn’t offensive, except in that the film is so goofy than its impossible to take at all seriously, which would, I suspect, make it a little less offensive. This is a film in which Michelle Rodriguez plays a hitman named Frank Kitchen – who basically looks like Michelle Rodriguez in a bad fake beard – who wakes up one day to discover that the surgeon sister, Dr. Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver) of one of his victims has performed a sex change operation on him without his approval, so now Frank Kitchen looks like Michelle Rodriguez without a beard. Frank is understandably upset by this, and decides to try and get some revenge on Dr. Jane – who tells the story from her point-of-view in an interview by another doctor (Tony Shaloub).
I don’t think that The Assignment makes light of transition or transgender people as much as it doesn’t consider them at all, which is perhaps as bad or worse. The screenplay by Denis Hamill and Hill himself doesn’t really have anything to say about what it means to transition or anything like that – because, after all, Frank never made that decision – he simply woke up day having become a woman, and angry about it. Frank wants to be a man again, and once he discovers that’s not possible, it’s killing time.
The film is undeniably pulpy – an exploitation film more concerned with violence and style than anything else. On that level, the film works in fits and starts, but never builds to satisfying whole. Weaver is great as the mad scientist – even if she is a tad one note, villains in this type of film are always a tad one note, and the way Weaver rips into the role is easily the most entertaining part of it. Rodriguez simply cannot compete with her on pure entertainment value, and the whole horribly fake beard in the early scenes does her no favors. This is apparently Rodriguez’ first lead role since her breakout film, Girlfight, where she played a female boxer – learning this fact on IMDB made me sad for a few reasons, not least of which because it was a reminder that Girlfight gave Rodriguez a role that allowed her to be tough but vulnerable and human at the same time – something she hasn’t had the chance to do since then, and certainly not here.
In short, The Assignment is a low budget action film which Hill never quite figures out his story, his characters or even the action – which is the most inexcusable part of the whole thing. The Assignment would be offensive to the LGBTQ community if it took its premise at all seriously – which fortunately, it doesn’t. That doesn’t make the film good however, as the execution of the film in general is almost shocking inept. I keep trying to see what others see in Hill – and haven’t got there yet.