Walter Hill was once one of the great exploitation filmmakers capable of delivering tersely entertaining action romps with a little bit of intellect beneath the surface. Sadly, those days are over. Hill’s latest feature, ‘The Assignment’, is an absolute mess, but at least it’s a fun mess.
Formerly titled ‘(Re)Assignment’, the film stars Michelle Rodriguez as contract killer Frank Kitchen (great name). He’s a bit of a scumbag even by contract killer standards. As tends to be the case in these sort of stories, he angers the wrong people. Well, actually, he angers one wrong person. Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver) is a plastic surgeon who kidnaps Kitchen and gives him gender reassignment surgery without permission. Frank doesn’t respond well to suddenly being a woman. Obviously, he wants revenge. It’s a simple little story hinged around a strange twist on gender identity that Hill dreamed up decades ago, and the movie feels decades old in ways both good and bad.
‘The Assignment’ is pretty clearly a willful exercise in bad taste. Thankfully, Hill does it with a tongue in his cheek. The film has animated comic book panel transitions to make it clear that it’s intended to be cartoony. The performances are highly stylized, from Rodriguez constant grunts and scowls to Weaver’s villain, who’s so over the top that you’d wish someone would give her a moustache to twirl. Weaver is easily the best part of the movie, trapped in a straightjacket for most of her flashback monologues and turning icy stares into an art form. Weaver is acutely aware that she’s headlining trash and plays it up with a level of gleeful naughtiness and theatrical posturing that’s tough to resist. Had the rest of the movie been as delightfully insane and self-aware as her performance, ‘The Assignment’ might have been fun. Unfortunately, she seems to be the only one fully in on the joke.
As much as Walter Hill deliberately executes his vision in a pulpy fairy tale tone (which he’s done before in movies like ‘The Warriors’ and ‘Streets of Fire’), he never quite settles into something that plays comfortably. At times (usually when Weaver is on screen), ‘The Assignment’ feels like delirious camp. At other times, it’s meant to play as a lean and mean thriller. That latter quality proves to be a problem. Rodriguez is certainly game, happy to have an opportunity to do tough guy growls and posturing, but that doesn’t always suit the role. Aside from a pretty fantastic fake dong, the makeup in her early Frank scenes is embarrassingly poor and the movie tends to fluctuate from intended and accidental laughs rather freely. It might have been a passable B-movie if the action were decent, but Hill holds back a little too much in that department and all the shoot-outs tend to feel perfunctory.
Then, of course, the gender politics at the center of the flick are wonky at best. It’s obvious that this was written long ago and it’s decidedly un-PC. At the same time, as offensive as the material can feel, the fact that it’s about a man trapped in a woman’s body to show how genitals don’t define gender kind of fits with the current times. Granted, it gets there in a deeply stupid and tasteless way.
Let’s call ‘The Assignment’ gently offensive at worst. The film is batshit insane enough to grab your attention, if only so that you can continue to shake your head in bafflement at the next ludicrous twist. Unfortunately, it’s also kind of dull and dated beneath the insanity. In the world of genre movies, there’s no greater sin than that.