Walter Hill’s “The Assignment” is a study in contrasts. On one hand, it’s a career high for one of its lead stars, while on the other it’s amongst the career lows for the other. On one hand, it makes a great argument for why we need more female-centered action movies, while on the other it makes a great argument for why we need better female-centered action movies. At times, it shows why we shouldn’t give up on certain stars and filmmakers just because they are “past their prime,” while at other times it shows why those who might not get as many offers for great roles or directing vehicles as they used to might want to not jump at anything that comes their way.
At a mental hospital in the Bay Area, Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shaloub) interviews former doctor Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver) about why she’s locked up, specifically looking for information about how she ended up lying on an operating table with a gunshot in her chest while the alleged shooter laid dead a room away and several other men dead throughout the place. Rachel proceeds to tell the story of an assassin named Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez), who was after Rachel for unwanted gender reassignment surgery, after Frank killed Rachel’s brother as well as a family member of low-life criminal Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia).
I would have really loved to have been able to say something along the lines of “This fucked-up adrenaline rush of a movie is exactly the kick in the balls cinema needs right now.” And if anyone could have pulled off some really fucked-up shit, it was Walter Hill. This is the guy who didn’t give a fuck about giving any of his main characters names in “The Driver.” The guy with nuts large enough to cast four sets of brothers to play four sets of outlaw brothers in “The Long Riders.” The guy who helped bring the totally fucked-up “The Warroirs” to life, and then two years later essentially remade it in the Bayou to give us the even more fucked-up “Southern Comfort.” The guy who helped guide the genre-redefining “Alien” franchise for nearly forty years. The guy who made Eddie Murphy in to Eddie fucking Murphy with “48 Hrs.” That Walter Hill was the one who should have shown up on set. The Walter Hill that directed this film? I don’t know what happened to him. Freed from the shackles of studio interference that ruined his last few movies (the drama surrounding the making of Hill’s 1998 film “Supernova” far surpass the mess that made it out of MGM/UA’s committee), he should have pushed the idea as far as it could go. To embrace the weirdness of the concept and run with it.
But, alas, maybe that was the biggest part of the problem with the film from the start. The concept. That somehow turning a man in to a woman is some kind of form of punishment, especially if the person who changed your gender is also a woman. Not only a woman, but THE prototype for female action heroes for the past thirty-eight years. If you think about it for more than a second, that’s a really messed up kind of false feminism that fails any kind of rationale.
The second biggest problem comes from the overall execution of the concept. Instead of just telling this story, Hill and co-writer Dennis Hamill had to wrap it up in the worst modern construct in storytelling, time-jumping first-person dictation from an unreliable narrator who could have knowledge of most of the things that happens in the story, passing the blame off on a third party there are no records of but exist in legends and whispers. It may have been relatively novel when “The Usual Suspects” came out twentysomething years ago, but today it’s just tired and lazy.
And then there’s the casting of Sigourney Weaver. Why why WHY would you cast the one actress whom embodies the very definition of “female action hero” for an entire generation of film goers and then have her to little more than sit in a chair and spout out quotes from Shakespeare? Well, it’s precisely because of whom she was and what she represents to millions of film fans.
Which is not to say the film is an entire mess. Walter Hill knows how to stage an action scene, and the film comes most alive when Kitchen starts to go after Honest John and his men in order to find the doctor who turned him in to a woman. It’s not a long sequence, only two or three minutes, but it’s got enough carnage and bloodshed to satiate even the hardest action fan. And Frank Kitchen gives Michelle Rodriguez her best role since her debut in “Girlfight” seventeen years ago. She’s even almost believable as a man, replete with deep voice, beard, hairy chest and floppy penis most men would be jealous of.
If there is any saving grace to “The Assignment” is that it might bring some recognition to a filmmaker for whom most people under the age of thirty have likely never heard of. If “The Assignment” brings new recognition to his earlier work, then I guess some good will have come from it. But on it’s own, the film is a mess and will hopefully not be a painful coda to an otherwise interesting career. Walter Hill deserves better. We deserve better.