THE ASSIGNMENT is Walter Hill’s weird new pariah of a movie, a Tale From the Crypt without a Keeper, based on a gimmick that was too challenging to execute properly, even ignoring the current touchiness of the subject matter. It’s much more interesting than good, more of a great acting challenge for Michelle Rodriguez (AVATAR) than a successful vehicle for her talents. Nice try, though.
Here’s what it’s about: ruthless hitman Frank Kitchen is just doing his thing one day, ruthless hitmanning, when he gets jumped and knocked unconscious and later he mysteriously wakes up in a hotel room with a woman’s body. Not, like, in bed with a dead woman. Like, he looks down and he has female genitalia.
Rodriguez plays Kitchen, which makes sense for one of the most macho big name actresses we have, and she does a good job of moving and acting masculine in her feminine body, but she can’t (or doesn’t) play the male part of the movie convincingly. They put a beard on her, and fake nose that I thought made her look a little like Oscar Isaac, but then she just has her normal long hair in a ponytail.
She also has a scene with a fake hairy chest and dick. That doesn’t look real either, but it makes you think “Wow, Walter Hill and Michelle Rodriguez. You’re goin all the way with this thing. Respect.”
(By the way, this is not the only actress who has played a transgender assassin in recent years – there was also Chloe Sevigny on the British show Hit & Miss in 2012. Supposedly she’s good in it, as usual.)
It’s kind of an OLDBOY situation – coming to in a weird, seedy hotel, mysterious tape tells him to keep taking the hormone pills, there are implications that it’s a revenge plot by evil surgeon Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver, AVATAR), he does detective shit trying to track down what’s going on. He hides out with a nurse (Caitlin Gerard, MAGIC MIKE) who takes care of him and they fall for each other, despite the complicated circumstances. And there are flashbacks and stories and Tony Shalhoub (PAIN & GAIN) is a psychiatrist hearing Dr. Jane’s side of the story and he doesn’t even believe her that there’s such a person as Frank Kitchen.
Speaking of kitchens, Hill throws everything and the sink at this story: USUAL SUSPECTS style wraparound interrogation, WARRIORS director’s cut type traced-comic-panel-transitions, flashbacks and flash forwards, hard boiled noir narration by Frank that turns out to be a video he made. (When he explains to the audience that he wiped the fingerprints at a crime scene and planted guns on dead people, you gotta question the wisdom of making a video diary about it.)
I know Hill doesn’t need to be chained to the sparseness of HARD TIMES or the precision of ALIEN for everything he ever does, but when he tries to do modern hyperactive style it always seems cheesy. This stuff is too random, too jumbled, too cheap – a bunch of flash without style. Which is ironic, because there’s a scene where Dr. Jane talks about an essay by Edgar Allen Poe, which she interprets as saying that you shouldn’t worry about the content of a piece of art if it’s stylish enough. It’s a pre-emptive meta defense that I think overestimates both how stylish THE ASSIGNMENT is and how offensive it is.
Of course, there were people angry before it came out, who hadn’t seen it and probly didn’t understand that it was destined to be seen by like 17 dedicated Walter Hill fans on V.O.D. People didn’t even go out to see Stallone vs. Mamoa in BULLET TO THE HEAD, of course they’re not gonna get around to this one, even if they’ve heard of it. Don’t worry about it.
But also don’t worry about it because I don’t think it’s fair to read this as anti-trans. The gender re-assignment surgery is only awful here because it’s done against Frank’s will. In fact, Dr. Jane is performing a mad science experiment that proves that just having the body and hormones of a woman doesn’t change Frank from being a macho prick. The doctor, and the movie, argue that gender is something other than our parts. I would say that Frank is not trans – he doesn’t see himself as a woman.
Another odd gender thing is that Dr. Jane has short hair and is in prison orange for much of the movie, but real late in the game she goes to record a deposition and she’s wearing a suit and tie. I had to think wait a minute, was I supposed to have seen her as a man this whole time? Or was I supposed to see her as a woman but now realize she’s actually a man? As far as I could tell the answer is C, she just wears male type clothes in this scene. And this must be intentional, to keep us on our toes about these gender distinctions.
Actually maybe that’s why he didn’t make this an official Tale From the Crypt, though. The Crypt Keeper would’ve been too insensitive about all this.
Man, I know I’m stepping in it by bringing this up, but I’m stepping in it by reviewing the movie at all, so what the hell, here goes: the other criticism is that a non-trans actor can’t play a trans person in a movie or it’s what they call “trans-face.” Please allow me a moment to dig myself into a hole about sensitive topics.
First I want to say that I know I have at least a couple regular readers who are trans, and I love them and I’m very proud that all kinds of people come together here to talk about action movies and shit. Second I want to say that I groan every time somebody complains about “political correctness” or “identity politics,” and I listened to Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast interview with Hill about this movie dreading Ellis’s inevitable, obnoxious monologue about “snowflakes” (it happens in the middle). I think it’s a good thing to be sensitive to other people’s feelings, and to evolve your values as you get older instead of stubbornly stick with what you grew up with if it’s not working for society anymore (or never was and you just didn’t realize it). And third I want to say that I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong about all this, and it’s more important to me to be nice to people than to be right, so if one or all of you say I’m full of shit I don’t want to fight you about it. We got bigger, stupider, more orange fish to fry and shouldn’t waste energy on our friends.
But… (Swallow.) I believe in art as much as I believe in anything, so I have a hard time getting behind these increasingly popular rules that put ideology before art. There are all kinds of nuances and individual cases and sensitivities, of course, but the whole idea of acting is that you’re not the character you’re playing, you’re putting yourself in their shoes. Great stretches and transformations are something we value in many of the great actors. I love seeing Tom Hardy be Bronson and Bane and two guys in LEGEND. I love seeing Meryl Streep doing the accent in BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and Viggo or Dolph or Scott Adkins playing Russian. I get why people got mad at Zoe Saldana for playing Nina Simone, because she looked ridiculous with that makeup on. But also it sucks for her because she’s a good actress and of course she wanted that role and if it was an Australian guy wearing a fake nose to play a famous Irish guy nobody would’ve trashed him the way they did Saldana, so that’s yet another white privilege.
Anyway if Laverne Cox made a good Letty that would be awesome. Rodriguez doesn’t entirely pull this off not because she’s not actually a man forced to be a woman in real life, but because she doesn’t entirely pull it off.
Having said that, I have to acknowledge that there are more layers to all these controversies about cultural appropriation and different types of “face” and what not. And the biggest part of it is about jobs, and making sure there are opportunities for all talented people, not just the same white ones. So, don’t slow that fight down on my account, but I worry that as people try to right those wrongs they’re demanding a type of segregation. We have this groundswell of the online outraged saying a great Chinese director can’t put Matt Damon in his movie, a man who has practically spent his entire life training to make a movie like BATGIRL can’t make BATGIRL, there can’t be a Halloween costume of The Rock’s character from MOANA because white kids would wear it… and I keep reading about controversies related to novelists writing about characters from other cultures, as if it’s ideal for all stories by white people to only contain white people. Which sort of puts a damper on stories, in my opinion. I see the good in white kids imagining themselves as a Pacific Islander, in men wanting to tell stories about women, in movies that bring together different nations, even though there’s more to it.
Maybe I should assume I just don’t get it. That’s fair. But just make sure you’re not the guys telling Bruce Lee not to combine martial arts disciplines or teach them to non-Chinese people. That’s all I ask. Remember that those are the bad guys in that story. Sharing is progress.
Anyway, please be easy on me, I’m trying to be honest. And now that I’ve dug my own grave revealing all my Archie Bunker shit I realize that the problem with Rodriguez in the role is that she can’t convincingly look like a man for the man parts, and the obvious answer is an actor who is physically male but adept at looking female – a female impersonator. Which I know is different from trans, so maybe we were both wrong? I guess then we’d have trouble believing the parts where it’s crucial that people accept Frank as female, but that seems more achievable than making the audience accept Rodriguez as male.
Anyway I liked seeing Rodriguez try. She was this exciting new actress in GIRLFIGHT but she got pigeonholed into the same type of tough girl sidekick roles for so many years. Here she gets to use those skills but try for so much more. And it is brave of her to have a nude scene with a fake dick and another nude scene touching her actual junk and pretending to be surprised by it.
Believe it or not this thing has been kicking around for almost 40 years now. Denis Hamill (TURK 182!, CRITICAL CONDITION) wrote a version called TOMBOY in 1978 and Hill liked the idea enough that he optioned it and tried to rework it into something of his own. But he never could figure out how to make it work until recently he dug it back out with this idea of making it “like a graphic novel,” whatever that means. He also made it into an actual comic book published by Hard Case Crime. If anybody has read it and liked it better than the movie let me know.
Walter Hill, I don’t know what’s up with you, but at least you’re not boring. Please keep makin ’em.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.