“The Assignment” is a film that arrives in theaters having already inspired vast outpourings of anger from two groups —the transgender community, which appears to be offended by its very premise, and action buffs, who are put off both by the premise (albeit for different reasons) and what they feel is a lazy execution that fails to offer the requisite thrills. While I am sympathetic to the complaints of both groups (somewhat more for the former) and recognize that it is indeed deeply flawed in many areas, I cannot quite agree with either. This is a modestly scaled B-movie by one of the best genre filmmakers of our time, Walter Hill, that has enough skill and personality going for it to make it worth checking out, even if it doesn’t quite live up (or down, depending on your perspective) to its borderline sleazy premise.
And what is that premise, you ask? In a nutshell, Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez … just keep reading) is a ruthless San Francisco hitman who runs afoul of Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), a brilliant but deranged surgeon who has lost her license for conducting various rogue experiments. Frank kills Dr. Kay’s brother, and the good doctor seeks vengeance and experimental research into the importance of physical identity on the psyche. She arranges with crime boss Honest John Hartunian (Anthony LaPaglia) to have him grab Frank and bring him to her secret lab, where she proceeds to perform gender reassignment surgery on him. Dr. Kay asserts that the surgery will take away Frank’s desire to kill. Needless to say, Frank sees things a little differently, and, once she discovers that the surgery cannot be reversed, she methodically hatches a grisly revenge plot on everyone involved with her transformation from Honest John and his goons all the way up to Dr. Kay. Helping Frank in her quest is Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), a nurse with whom Frank had a one-night stand before his transformation and who doesn’t seem particularly nonplussed by recent developments, though it seems that she may be harboring a few secrets of her own.
At first blush, one can easily understand why the transgender community might be a tad put off by the very existence of “The Assignment,” but the actual film is nowhere near as offensive as it might initially seem. For one thing, the film as a whole is so willfully and deliberately pulpy in tone (I could easily see a short version of this tale fitting perfectly into the confines of a “Sin City” film) that it is hard to take the alleged provocations on display with any degree of seriousness—this is a film that is so archetypal in nature that the sort-of sweethearts at its center are literally named Frank(ie) and Johnnie. Additionally, to suggest that Frank is meant to represent all transgender people is nonsense because he is clearly not one himself, and, outside of the obvious physical construct, little about him changes after undergoing his forced surgery. I would also point out that no less of a filmmaker than Pedro Almodovar used the notion of unwilling gender reassignment surgery as a plot point in his own unabashed genre exercise, “The Skin I Live In,” and no one seemed especially put off by it even though the deployment there was arguably more questionable from a taste perspective than what is seen here.
That said, “The Assignment” is still a problematic work in many ways from a purely cinematic perspective. The screenplay by Hill & Denis Hamill (which Hill has been toying with since the late ‘70s) is an awkward construction with much of the story presented in a series of flashbacks, as the now-incarcerated Dr. Kay recounts the story to another psychiatrist (Tony Shalhoub). This concept is especially problematic since Hill is at his best when he allows characters to define themselves purely through their actions instead of relentlessly explaining themselves as they do here. The film also screams out for a more overtly stylized visual treatment in the vein of something like his great “Streets of Fire”—a fact underlined by the occasional bits of black-and-white photography and comic book-style transitions—that might have also helped to underscore the kind of pulpy approach Hill was clearly going for. Another big problem, at least at first, is the casting of Michelle Rodriguez as Frank. There is nothing wrong with her performance but the early scenes in which she portrays the male version of Frank, complete with a wildly unconvincing beard and a lingering close-up of his genitalia for good measure, do inspire a few bad laughs right when the film is trying to establish itself. For some viewers, it may never recover from that.
For those who can get beyond that, “The Assignment” contains plenty of points of interest. Sigourney Weaver is pretty much a blast throughout as the snidely condescending doctor who sets all of the events into motion. As for Rodriguez, once she sheds the beard, her performance improves greatly. Obviously, we know she can do the steely-eyed badass stuff as well as anyone else but she also gets a couple of quieter moments amidst the chaos where she displays a more vulnerable side without stepping out of character—in one, she consults a doctor about whether the surgery can be reversed and begins shyly inquiring about certain personal details regarding her new equipment. In the other, she is about to go to bed with Johnnie when she realizes that she has no idea of how to approach lovemaking from a female perspective. (“You’ll do fine,” she is reassured in a line that is both funny and strangely touching.) As for Hill, while he is clearly working with a lower budget than usual here (with Vancouver substituting, not too convincingly, for San Francisco), he is still able to establish a convincingly noir attitude toward the material and the scenes of violence are done in a spare and economical style that is a relief from the over-the-top pyrotechnics of most current action films. (He also gets bonus points for employing Giorgio Moroder to deliver a cheerfully retro synth score.)
It is easy to see how the dramatic excesses of the plot could prove offensive to the transgender community, though I can just as easily see “The Assignment” one day becoming a cult favorite in the way that the once-controversial “Cruising” would eventually find some fans within the gay community that once scorned it. As an exercise in unapologetic pulp fiction, it gets the job done in a smart, efficient and slyly subversive manner. As the latest entry in the Walter Hill filmography, it definitely belongs on the second tier. Even though it may not be the equal to a classic like “The Driver” or “Streets of Fire,” it will do until that next masterwork does come along.
Sigourney Weaver stars as a twisted surgeon and Michelle Rodriguez as the man she turns into a woman in Walter Hill's new noir thriller.
A demented pulp fiction about a brilliant surgeon who creates a Frankenstein monster by performing a sex change on the scumbag assassin who killed her brother, The Assignment (previously titled (Re)Assignment)is, by any objective standard, a disreputable slice of bloody sleaze. But there’s also no question that veteran director and co-writer Walter Hill knows exactly what he’s doing here, wading waist-deep into Frank Miller Sin City territory and using genre tropes to explore some provocatively, even outrageously transgressive propositions. For longtime fans of the filmmaker, this Canadian-made low-budget revenge yarn will be embraced as Hill’s most entertaining and, on the terms it sets for itself, accomplished film in some time. It’s an instant cult item.
In a public climate arguably more saturated with discussions of gender than ever in the history of the world, Hill and his co-screenwriter Denis Hamill make subversive creative use of the topic in ways that are both brainy and amusingly provocative. The catalyst for all the mayhem is genius, but now defrocked plastic surgeon Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver in intimidatingly imposing mode), whose revenge upon low-life hitman Frank Kitchen, who took out her brother, is to capture him and apply her expertise by turning him into a woman (Michelle Rodriguez); in a world where transgenderism is now an accepted fact of life, this is one example where it is neither voluntary nor desired.
Intercutting between Rachel’s interrogation by shrink Dr. Ralph Green (Tony Shalhoub) and the hatching of the now-female Frank’s extensive revenge-taking for what’s been done to him/her physically results in a great deal of exposition. But Hill keeps it lively and interesting, on one hand by supplying the brilliant Rachel with lots of blunt and high-toned commentary about how and why she’s done what she did; on an intellectual level, she and Hannibal Lecter would be an even match.
On the other, there’s the spectacle of watching Frank come to grips — and this is meant literally — with “her” own new body. Without any self-consciousness, Rodriguez enacts a thorough physical self-inspection from top to bottom, and her former tough guy character remains infuriated by having been deprived of the equipment he used to enjoy. All the same, she eventually reconnects with a young nurse and part-time good-times girl (Caitlin Gerard) “he” had hooked up with just prior to his unwanted conversion.
A good part of the action involves the extensive revenge Frank exacts upon a local San Francisco gangster, Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia), for an earlier betrayal; plenty of bad guys get blown away here in bloody fashion, and Frank really is remorseless. In this world, much of it set in San Francisco’s Chinatown (actually shot in Vancouver), everyone is guilty — or, to paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, everyone’s got it coming.
Hill, production designer Renee Read and cinematographer James Liston immediately establish and then maintain the look of a seedy urban world defined by dirty browns and blacks, as well as by dimly lit streets, a lonely diner and a seedy old hotel; this is as noir as it gets these days. On numerous occasions, sequences end with visual punctuation courtesy of graphic comics-style illustrations.
The somber tone and low-end production values may not be exactly in tune with young neo-noir enthusiasts, but more seasoned fans of the genre and the filmmaker will recognize and embrace Hill’s use of noir to play with and comment on topical issues in a deliciously subversive way, political correctness be damned. At the same time, however, a witty intellectual loftiness hovers over everything thanks to the erudite remarks ceaselessly pouring from the mouth of Weaver’s doctor, who likes to confound her interrogator with frequent references to Shakespeare.
Weaver’s terrifically articulated performance neatly establishes the top side of the film’s high/low dynamic. For her part of the equation, Rodriguez, with momentary exceptions, maintains a virulent charge of fury, anger and disgust with what’s been done to him/her, something that quite plausibly drives the vengeful mission. It’s a story of two killers, one of whom operates from the brain, the other from more basic instincts, and together they’re quite a pair for one movie.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Production: SBS Films
Cast: Michelle Rodriguez, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony LaPaglia, Caitlin Gerard, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Walter Hill
Screenwriters: Walter Hill, Denis Hamill
Producers: Said Ben Said, Michel Merkt
Director of photography: James Liston
Production designer: Renee Read
Costume designer: Ellen Anderson
Editor: Philip Norden
Music: Giorgio Moroder, Raney Shockne
Casting: Sheila Jaffe, Candice Elzinga