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The Assignment

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.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 27th, 2017 at 10:56 am and is filed under Action, Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “The Assignment”

  1. Hearing about this makes me think of another movie that I can’t even mention the name of without it being a massive SPOILER (I’m pretty sure that Vern hasn’t reviewed it). So what I’ll do is, I’ll write in lower-case font in the middle of a longer paragraph of text copied and pasted from the Washington Post about Senate leaders postponing their shitty healthcare vote below…

    … Facing a rebellion within their own ranks, Senate Republican leaders on Tuesday postponed a vote to overhaul the 2010 Affordable Care Act until after the July Fourth recess. The current proposal by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would cause an estimated 22 million more Americans to be uninsured by the end of the coming decade while reducing federal spending by $321 billion during that time, the Congressional Budget Office concluded Monday. The film that I was talking about was talking about was the skin I live in by Almodovar (D-Md), but even mentioning that kinda’ gives away the film’s best twist. The forecast by Congress’s nonpartisan budget scorekeepers appeared to rapidly erode Republicans’ confidence in the bill, with at least five GOP lawmakers saying that they would vote against even a procedural motion to start debate. In a sign of the challenge Senate Republicans face in mustering enough votes, Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said the procedural vote is likely to be scheduled for Wednesday rather than Tuesday.

    … anyhow. I don’t think I’ll be checking out THE ASSIGNMENT anytime soon, I’m sad to say. But just to lob a conversational hand grenade into the mix, re: Vern’s thoughts on casting, what did y’all think about Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson?

  2. Whatever its flaws this deserves huge credit for giving a double meaning to a totally generic title like THE ASSIGNMENT.

  3. I’m out and about, but I see there is a video essay on this topic, just in time to school me, hopefully it will help me understand.

  4. I’m out and about, but I see there is a video essay on this topic, just in time to school me, hopefully it will help me understand.

  5. As always, Vern, really appreciate your honest, thoughtful, and open approach to this sort of issue. One thing I didn’t get from your review: does THE ASSIGNMENT use its nutty gimmick to make any kind of coherent point about gender? Is this a metaphor, somehow, or what? I don’t see how you could have such a button-pushing premise and avoid making some kind of statement, but I sure can’t figure out what it could be from the description.

  6. The Undefeated Gaul

    June 27th, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    I agree the movie would probably have worked better with a male actor in the lead, because while I love Rodriguez, seeing the way they tried to make her look like a man was so over the top ridiculous the movie just could not get back from that. And then when her character is turned into a woman, she’s just way too beautiful, making the whole thing so unbelievable they completely lost me. It’s not the even the biggest issue the film has either – that would be the fact that 50% of the running time is spent on conversations between Weaver and her psychiatrist, which are dull and completely unnecessary. That shite would have killed the film dead even if the actor/actress playing the lead would have been 100% convincing.

    It’s a shame, because I think there’s tons of potential in the story concept for an intensely disturbing, gripping film. Sadly none of that came out in the execution.

  7. Scott Foy said it sucked and the action isn’t very good.

    There are starting to be many transgender actresses. There is one that should be given a female lead. Her name is Michele Hendley. Not only is she hotter than most actresses, she is also a top notch at acting.

  8. I wish 70’s & 80’s greats like Hill and Schrader would stop trying to keep up with the cool kids, and just make their movies without trying too hard. Did anyone see DOG EAT DOG? Apart from being mean-spirited and boring, it was yet another attempt by Schrader to be Tarantino-Cool (see his so-so TOUCH for another example).

    Thankfully DePalma is still consistent with his own style.

  9. What the hell has DePalma been up to lately anyway? Seems like he went really quiet after that documentary.

  10. I think it would’ve been entirely possible to make Rodriguez look like a convincing man, but not with that fake beard. Linda Hunt played a man before cgi even existed. That beard just made the whole thing look cheap and misguided.

    Also this is a hitman movie with almost no action. She shoots a few people sometimes but if you can’t make an action movie, make it about something else instead of having Sigourney weaver give Exposition for half the movie.

    Vern, thank you for baring your soul for us. I found that very steady and even handed. I still hope there is a great trans action movie one day. This is not it.

    (A friend even gave me the perfect title for it. TRANSACTION! But that might be insensitive and I’m totally serious about a trans action hero.)

  11. I’ve expressed similar Archie Bunker sentiments here before. I haven’t expressed them as artfully as Vern here, though. I do think there is a kind of moral mob-and-pitchfork psychology of the internet at work where people are just addicted to being outraged by anything that could possibly be regarded as insensitive to [insert one’s identity group here]. On the whole, I think it is good that you have these perspectives in the conversation, shining a light on these issues, keeping people honest, and accountable and whatnot. It’s definitely better than how it was 10-20 years ago when no one really raised these issues, because people did not have a platform to challenge the mainstream white guy way of narrating things. At the same time, I do think there is often a self-righteous, un-nuanced, and petty tenor to a lot of the popular discourse around this stuff that only reinforces right-wingers worst stereotypes of activists and liberals in general.

    Also, this picture of Michelle Rodriguez as a dude is cracking me up.

  12. The thing is though Vern, you’re totally right, I don’t understand why people have such a bug up their ass about who can play what in movies these days, acting is an artform, it’s not reality and people used to understand that, Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for playing an autistic character, as Franchise Fred mentioned Linda Hunt won an Oscar for playing a male character and Gary Oldman tried and spectacularly failed in TIPTOES to play a little person, but now people seem to have this literalist attitude that you can only portray what you are, which is highly reductive to the artform that is acting.

    That’s not to say that for example GHOST IN THE SHELL would have been a lot more interesting with a Japanese actress instead of ScarJo, but people are taking it too far when they insist that only a trans person can portray a trans character for example.

    The most recent absurd controversy of that type I’ve heard is people don’t want Peter Dinklage to play Herve Villechaize, as if actors who are little people and the exact same (mixed) ethnicity as Herve Villechaize are easy to find.

  13. Yeah, that photo does not work. Michelle Rodriguez has a certain toughness to her that might make you think she could pull off pretending to be a dude, but it’s just not happening here (although, maybe it works better when it’s not a still image? Maybe?). The makeup department weren’t doing their job.

  14. I’m not sure there’s anything really worth talking about regarding The Assignment except to note how ironic it is that, of the films in the ‘Wouldn’t it be fucked up if a surgeon gave you SRS?’ microgenre (the awkward little… brother(?) of the ‘Unnecessary surgery probably sucks, eh? family) the one that started with a ‘killer t****y’ script in the 70’s would have the best understanding of gender identity?

    I will lightly defend the pre-backlash in that the early details of the film and early interviews and such were pretty dire sounding.

    As far as casting goes, well, I am quite sure this is unintentional because you’re good people Vern, but you come off pretty reactionary in the review. Better actors are passed up for parts all of the time for dumber or more political reasons than ‘let’s try auditoning a trans actor for the trans role for once.’ Like, it’s kind of ludicrous to imply that casting someone in movie for name recognition or because they know someone or because they signed a multi-movie contract and you’d really like to get that over with is fine, but if you are thinking about prioritizing trans actors in trans roles, that’s when you’ve crossed the line and are getting in the way of True Art.

    I don’t want to come off as being mean or harsh because I know you’re trying your best on these sort of things and I appreciate it, and I understand you were mostly using it to launch into a broader point but it does come off as ill-conceived, at least in regards to this particular issue (if not this particular movie because it’s really pretty tangental to trans stuff in movies and TV.)

  15. Thank you, Birch. I certainly don’t mean to imply that it would be unfair if trans actors were prioritized for any roles. I’m more thinking that if whatever actor does great they should be praised for it. Like, I’m not able to get mad at Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze for TO WONG FOO, for example. But in retrospect I think what I’m arguing for here is kind of a pipe dream/idealist/easy-for-me-to-say type of world where those types of artistic decisions can be made not at the expense of other actors. I guess I just hope some day if the world survives long enough there won’t be such an imbalance and a side benefit of that will be that those type of castings won’t be a problem.

    I appreciate the criticism and thanks for being so nice about it too.

    p.s. I’m glad I didn’t bring up when Joseph Fiennes almost played Michael Jackson

  16. I just watched this and Vern is right. It’s not anti-trans by any stretch. The awful thing that is done to Frank is not making him a female but forcing him to live as someone he did not choose to be…so the message can actually be construed as pro-be who you are.

    Also, Vern said “I see the good in white kids imagining themselves as a Pacific Islander”. Well, I am a white guy who is married to a Pacific Islander and I’m proud to be married into such a family. So much so that I went out and gave myself a mini-Maui look:

    (I threw some red in there)

  17. I mean, that is a high school drama club level beard. Come on!

  18. I’m really surprised that this movie has such a good cast! Especially because I didn’t know it existed before your review.

    As usual, you nailed my thoughts about a certain topic in a much more eloquent way than I would be able to word them, so I just shut up.

    Btw, I finally realized who “male” Michelle Rodriguez reminds me of: singer/transvestite Conchita Wurst!

  19. Liked this one – It’s not Top of the Hill Hill, but it’s not bad, kinda brave and says some interesting stuff.

    I really did not understand the whole “this film is trans-phobic” thing at all.

    Critics were falling over themselves inn a rush to be offended.

    There are many things to be legit upset about in this shitty world – but the indignation surrounding this one was wrong headed, I think.

  20. Vern,

    Like you, over the years I’ve come around to thinking that some of the ideological purity tests leveled against art, even if well-intentioned, can be harmful in their own ways. Ultimately I think it just comes down to this: everyone’s going to have their own opinion about something, and it’s impossible to make something that NO ONE could complain about (and even if it were possible that thing would probably not be universally adored, but considered boringly inoffensive at best).

    As a director, this comes up for me most during casting. I often have to ask myself, am I being racist/sexist/ageist/whateverist here? If I cast *this* particular person in this role, am I missing an opportunity to give another actor of a different gender/race more visibility? And after I weigh those & every bit of criteria, who do *I* think is best for a role? Every director will weigh those criteria differently, just as every viewer is going to have their own opinion about whether the correct decisions were made. So at a certain point you have to just accept that and own your decisions, knowing that they won’t work for everyone. Then if more than 50% of people think you screwed up, you probably did, so you apologize. Otherwise you brush it off.

  21. I haven’t seen this film but Rodriguez’s makeup doesn’t look that bad to me in the screen grab here. S/he looks kinda like Richard Edson to me. Something seems off about the arms though – maybe they just need to be hairier?

    Reading about this movie reminds me of the old Melvin Van Peebles movie WATERMELON MAN, in which Godfrey Cambridge has to be in whiteface at the beginning of the movie in order to play a white guy who mysteriously transforms into a black guy. Obviously that film was a satire about race relations, so I share Subtlety’s curiosity about whether THE ASSIGNMENT addresses gender issues in any similar way.

    What’s interesting about WATERMELON MAN now (or even 10 years ago, which is when I think I saw it on TV) is that it allows for the possibility of a person born into a more privileged group coming to identify with the struggles of a less privileged group, which is not a possibility that the modern left seems to allow for much anymore. I have come to loath hearing the word “appropriation” which basically is a fancy word which means “don’t be influenced by or try to identify with other peoples and cultures, ever, because that kind of open-mindedness is bad”.

    I don’t remember people booing when Felicity Huffman played a transgender ex-male in TRANSAMERICA – in fact it won a GLAAD Media Award didn’t it?

    Lesson learned: if you make yet another movie about a white straight “cisgender” male then you’re fine, but if you even try to depict anyone else then you’ll be ripped to shreds. Which strikes me as a really counterproductive strategy for promoting diversity.

    If nothing else, the “let’s attack a limited-release film starring a Latina bisexual actress, and say we’re doing it to defend the underdog” crowd has raised my awareness of this film and made me curious to see it.

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