I love Walter Hill. I’ll happily watch anything he makes and I know that I’ll be entertained. He may not always knock it out of the ballpark but he rarely ever strikes out. His latest effort, The Assignment, is a ground-ruled double.
The Assignment has a pretty crazy premise, one that would likely cause more of an uproar if it were directed by a more mainstream director, but Walter Hill has never earned the respect he truly deserves. Well, if you’ve been sleeping on Mr. Hill all these years that’s your loss!
Michelle Rodriguez stars as badass hitman Frank Kitchen. Frank does not play around. He’s a ruthless, cold-blooded killer that always gets the job done. If you need someone dead, Frank is your guy. Even the best of the best hit hiccups along the way and that’s what happens to Frank when some gangsters he does work for double cross him. After the attack, Frank wakes up confused in a hotel. After he starts to come to he realizes something is very different. Thanks to a plastic surgeon that has gone rogue, Dr. Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver), Frank has undergone gender reassignment surgery and is now a woman.
Frank is devastated by this discovery and does not know how to handle it. As he begins to destroy the hotel room in anger he finds a box that contains some hormones and a tape recorder with some tapes. He plays the first tape and here’s Dr. Jane explaining what she has done and that she has done so to give Frank a chance to start over and be a better person with this new life. Frank decides that he’s going to hunt down Dr. Jane and anyone else that crossed him and get sweet, sweet revenge!
Like I said, the premise is crazy. Way back when it was first announced there were some people that got upset with the idea and voiced their concerns. If the movie were a big, successful film we likely would have heard plenty of outrage and that’s understandable. The transgender community has every right to be offended and upset with this film. The character Rodriguez plays undergoes gender reassignment surgery as a form of punishment. It’s easy to see how that’s not a great look.
All that being said I don’t think Hill was intending to be offensive here. I also understand that that isn’t really the point. If someone is offended by something the intent is irrelevant. What I think Hill was trying to do is create a bit of a throwback to the 70’s. Take a subject matter that’s a touchy subject and exploit while attempting to put in a bit of a positive spin. My guess is that the thought process was, “hey, the transgender character is the hero.” This, of course, ignores the fact that they didn’t choose to become transgender and it was meant as a form of punishment. I could be way off on my line of thinking as to what Hill’s intent was, but hey, I’m just spit balling here.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this premise done in modern cinema. Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In took the same idea but delivered it in a more polished format. Almodóvar’s film is still rooted in classic genre cinema, it’s basically a mad doctor movie, but it’s presented as more art-house fare.
If we look at the film and just focus on the gritty hitman/revenge portion it is rather fun. This is no John Wick, but it’s an enjoyable shoot-em-up. Michelle Rodriguez as a lot of charisma and is capable of demanding attention while on screen. She’s a badass and she knows it. This all works very well after the surgery when she’s Michelle Rodriguez. The stuff that is pre-surgery and the flashbacks, that’s a hard sell. It’s Michelle Rodriguez in a fake beard and we can tell it’s a fake beard. It looks silly and it’s hard to get past but if there were a film from the 70’s that’s kind of what we’d expect so if you view it in that regard it’s sort of ok. Mostly though, it’s just silly.
Sigourney Weaver is the star of this film. She sort of acts as narrator and is the one guided us through the story. In the film, the police are unable to locate Frank Kitchen and thus do not believe he is real and instead think Dr. Jane has just lost her mind. The fact that most of Weaver’s performances come while sitting in a chair is a testament to how great of an actress she is. Every moment she speaks I was captivated. It’s one of her best roles in years.
The Assignment is now out on Blu-ray from Lionsgate and it looks and sounds great. Of course, we expect new releases to look and sound great, there’s no reason for them not to unless someone messed up real bad. The bummer is that this comes with no special features outside of a little slide of stills. I would have loved a commentary or at least an interview with Hill. I’m truly curious as to his thinking while making the film and what he was hoping to accomplish.
I wouldn’t recommend The Assignment for everybody. Some people just aren’t going to be into it and many likely won’t be able to get past the fake bearded Rodriguez. If you’re a Walter Hiller purist though, then this is absolutely for you. And if you just want to see something interesting and experience a mostly fun 90 minutes, then I’d check it out. It’s problematic to be sure, but there’s enough here to make it enjoyable.
The Assignment is now out on Blu-ray from Lionsgate.