After several years of absence, renowned genre master Walter Hill returns with The Assignment, a stripped down piece of gangster exploitation. A murky tale of gender reassignment and identity deconstruction, Hill's inverted tale of self-discovery is filled with neon kissed tenements, matter of fact violence, and an over the top performance by Sigourney Weaver.
Hitman Frank Kitchen runs afoul of a psychotic physician after his latest job. After being subjected to an involuntary sex reassignment procedure, Frank sets out to kill everyone involved in the surgery. Michelle Rodriguez stars as Kitchen, spending a large portion of the film costumed as a man, complete with facial hair, intricate makeup work, and a synthetic phallus. Viewers may be put off by the use of an undesired sex change operation as the catalyst or by the blatantly homoerotic, teenage fantasy of Rodriquez locking lips with the stunning Caitlin Gerard, but these are staples of the 70's exploitation films that Hill is modestly trying to emulate.
The supporting cast is filled with competent talent that behave as if they've walked onto the wrong set, and this only helps the grindhouse presentation. The brilliant Anthony LaPaglia plays a criminal afterthought, while a sleepwalking Tony Shalhoub crosses pens with a totally insane Sigourney Weaver. While Rodriguez struggles to bring depth to her role, Weaver appears to be the only person having any fun with material that is begging to be lampooned. She has a monologue in the final act that is a perfect representation of what The Assignment could have been: a gloriously trashy orgy of sex and violence, but these dreams are dashed by a surprisingly safe presentation of the story and repetitive kill scenes. Rodriguez moves from victim to victim like an automaton, periodically speaking into a video camera to chronicle her vendetta, an idea that has merit but is undercooked by Hill and Denis Hamill's script.
Everything about The Assignment reeks of restrained imitation. Stock comic book stills break up the film's narrative and the actual gun play is painfully mundane. The plot is a predictable rehash, which is suitable for homage, but Hill has a wealth of talent both behind the camera and in front which are woefully underused. The intention to keep things focused on Kitchen's odyssey has merit, but the script doesn't explore the ramifications of the situation, other than to move the story to the next plot point. Both Rodriguez and Weaver use what they are given to adequate ends, but ultimately, aside from an intriguing, if controversial premise, and some gritty camera work by James Liston, there's just not much here.
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Available now for digital rental, and coming soon to theaters, The Assignment is a passably reckless affair. There are a handful of glaring flaws that will relegate this to the "wait for free streaming" queue for many, however, it is worth the rental if only for Rodriguez's unique role, Weaver’s ultra-campy mad scientist, and a flawed, but interesting idea that never seems to come to life. Excellent visual compositions and an unmistakable air of 70's neo-noir grit make The Assignment a better than average B movie throwaway.
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