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[Now Playing On VODville] ‘The Assignment’

This movie has pissed a lot of people off. This movie will continue to piss a lot of people off. It’s not hard to see why, either. All one need do is read the logline for The Assignment and the thinkpiece alarms fire off in record time. After all, it is about a hitman who, after killing a twisted doctor’s brother, is given a sex change against his will by said doctor. Coupled with the fact that the project previously went under the titles “Tomboy” and “(Re)Assignment” during production and you have a surefire recipe for social media uproar.

It’s a shame that the title was changed, because outside of likely drumming up more offended tweets, either option would have at least afforded it a more distinctive name. The one it now bears is incredibly generic, which is an unfortunate situation for a low budget neo-noir actioner to be in. When your film isn’t hitting the big screen, you need it to stand out as much as possible. Lucky for this film, in addition to a standout premise, it has a nice cast as well.

Familiar faces such as Tony Shalhoub and Anthony LaPaglia are more than welcome, but the centerpieces here are Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver. Both deliver, especially the latter, who plays the warped surgeon laying out gender-bender vengeance upon hitman Frank Kitchen. The film is told in a non-linear fashion, likely in an effort to centralize locations and save some money. Normally that might be a real issue for a film like this, but Weaver goes a long way towards making it work.

Aside from a few short sequences, the majority of her scenes are set in the present. She’s since been caught and locked up in an institution, tasked with explaining her situation to a psychiatrist (Shalhoub). Weaver, as the imposing and somewhat androgynous Dr. Rachel Kay, has a real Hannibal Lecter thing going on as she illustrates her off-kilter worldview in constantly eloquent ways. If the film has a not-so-secret weapon, it’s Weaver.

Michelle Rodriguez is tasked with bringing to life scumbag killer for hire Frank Kitchen, both pre-surgery and post-surgery. She actually succeeds at both, minus the occasional wonky shot where it’s clear that she is drag king-ing it up. That’s more a fault of Hill and the cinematographer than Rodriguez’s performance.

The actress does her best to bring across the sheer insanity of her character’s arc, not only as a man coming to terms with being turned into a woman against his will, but also as someone with a dark past that has a shot at changing his/her stars. It’s a credit to her talent that this film doesn’t come off even sleazier and more messed up. In a film that has Rodriguez going full frontal nude both as a man and as a woman, that’s an achievement.

Make no mistake, this is 100% a drive-in style B-movie crime film. It’s also very much a Walter Hill movie. The macho posturing, the double gun-wielding, macho bullshit being the downfall of the leads, etc. Hell, it even has comic book panel transitions like the director’s cut of The Warriors. It’s all there, albeit in a diluted form.

Best known for classic films such as The Driver, The Warriors, 48 Hrs., and Red Heat, Walter Hill is a veteran action filmmaker who hasn’t had much luck since the early ’90s. Despite still regularly churning out great movies on the whole through at least the middle of that decade, his career has been a series of starts & stops and financial failures ever since 1992’s Trespass.

His is a career not only littered with acknowledged classics, but also lesser known gems like Southern Comfort, Streets of Fire, and Extreme Prejudice. That said, his output since 1995’s highly underrated Last Man Standing has been shaky at best. Sure, “Deadwood” is a massive achievement for all involved, but that was more a David Milch thing than a Walter Hill affair. The messiness of Supernova aside, films such as Undisputed, Bullet to the Head, and the miniseries Broken Trail are all entertaining efforts, but they don’t exactly linger in the mind.

So where does The Assignment fit into all of this? While a far cry from his glory days, it actually felt more like “a Walter Hill film” to me than his last three efforts. It’s low budget certainly holds it back from achieving the adrenaline-pumping heights of his ’70s and ’80s output, but there’s something oddly intriguing about The Assignment.

I wish I could say that the action is the draw, but while those scenes are competently done, they are almost all quick affairs. Frank is in and out with next to no resistance. I guess you could say he’s just too good a hitman, but I suspect the lack of intricate gunplay and fight scenes has more to do with a quick shooting schedule and a minuscule budget than it does a creative choice.

Now in his ’70s, Hill’s glory days as genre filmmaker are likely behind him. If he ever gets the chance to make another film after this (which itself is lucky enough to exist), chances are that it won’t be some last gasp of a classic movie. That’s perfectly fine. Why? Because The Assignment is perfectly fine. It’s a well-made, cheapie B-movie picture with a nice cast, a good score (partially done by Giorgio Moroder!) and a luridly intriguing premise.

It might not be Streets of Fire or Extreme Prejudice, but it’s certainly as good as (if not a little better than) Undisputed and Bullet to the Head. It would probably make a nice B-side choice for a double-feature with Johnny Handsome, given their plastic surgery-tinged vengeance similarities. If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Walter Hill, seek out some of the classics I have mentioned here first. Then, if you’re curious to see how he’s operating today, give The Assignment a look. It’s not a great film by any means, but it’s also not an embarrassment. As (potential) last films go, there are far worse ways to exit one’s career as a director.

The Assignment is currently available on VOD via most digital platforms.

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