Film Review: The Assignment

A hit man embarks on a bloody revenge spree after being surgically transformed by a mad surgeon in this wildly over-the-top action thriller.
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"I killed a lot of guys," says killer-for-hire Frank Kitchen in the opening voiceover of two-fisted director Walter Hill's provocative (in many senses of the word) wallow in blood, babes and bullets. "They were worthless pieces of sh*t, but I killed them, and you're not supposed to kill people."

That's the film's first teaser, followed by a second: Why is pompous Dr. Galen (Tony Shalhoub) interviewing icy former colleague Dr. Kay (Sigourney Weaver) in the Mendocino Psychiatric Facility, and why is she deemed so dangerous that she's under guard and strapped into a straitjacket? The answer isn't long in coming: She's confined until such time as she's deemed sane enough to stand trial for multiple murders that she blames on the aforementioned Kitchen, presumably a figment of her imagination since no one can find him.

Of course, that's because the wealthy Dr. Kay, specialist in sexual-reassignment surgery, used her expertise to transform the thuggish, amoral Frank into a woman (Michelle Rodriguez) as baroque payback for his murder of her brother, a drug-addicted wastrel. Could the fact that Frank is an all-around unabashed jerk have suggested to Dr. Kay the form his punishment takes? What didn't—perhaps Hill and screenwriter Denis Hamill's sop to sensitivity—is that Dr. Kay is the man-hating lesbian her cropped hair and wardrobe of sharp men's suits and ties suggest. She's just full-on bughouse crazy and rich enough to indulge her lunatic whims.

As baroquely ludicrous premises go, that's a whopper, and it's played out for maximum carnage and neo-noir luridness (cue the neon-washed streets). And while there's no dismissing out of hand the criticism that the very premise is transphobic—in the broad sense it is, given that the transsexual Frank isa gimlet-eyed murder machine—Frank was a dick long before he lost his. The issue isn't transsexuality per se, but rather that cisgender Frank was kidnapped, drugged and made over against his will. Granted, that's a subtle point for a defiantly unsubtle film and, yes, there's more than a hint of Pedro Almodovar's 2011 The Skin That I Live In here, though the conceit is worked to rather different ends.

The Assignment (originally and rather more cleverly titled (Re)Assignment) isn't a "good" movie in the conventional sense of the word, but it's a great piece of unbridled pulp fiction and a fabulous showcase for Weaver and Rodriguez, both of whom grab their roles by the throat and shake them until they stop fighting. Weaver nails Dr. Kay's haughty disdain for everyone and everything from her first scene, playing her like a cobra in a basket, just biding time until there's an opportunity to strike. Rodriguez has the tougher part, and while she's only a fairly convincing man—even lowered to a growl, her voice is a little light—she's terrific as a fledgling trans-woman who was forced to skip over the gradual physical and psychological transition period and has yet to make peace with heels. The two of them could liven up a co-op board meeting.

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