3 out of 5
Directed by: Walter Hill
It’s janky; its core gimmick is pretty unconvincing; but neither of these attributes ends up affecting that The Assignment is an effectively entertaining piece of pulp… primarily because it’s an undeniably purposeful piece of pulp, professionally helmed by director Walter Hill to avoid overindulgences that may have made this approach much less tolerable and fun.
‘The Assignment’ concerns gun-for-hire Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez), who does his jobs clean and quick but does one that affects the wrong person’s family, necessitating a revenge hit on Frank. …Except the “wrong person” in this case is Dr. Jane (Sigourney Weaver), an underground surgeon who, alongside a specialty in gender reassignment surgeries, enjoys experimenting on the homeless in some kind of unclear pursuit of a better, more surgically-aligned world; thus the revenge on Frank is a forced operation: he wakes up with breasts and sans penis, directions for hormones to take, and a message from Dr. Jane hoping that this change helps change his violent ways.
Frank, while trying to find out if his physical adjustments are reversible meanwhile kills his way back up the ladder to Dr. Jane, in lots of brief, to-the-point, Walter Hill shootouts. Our story is fleshed out to a 90 minute runtime with a questionably over-complex structure that has a mental ward imprisoned Dr. Jane recounting some details to her doctor, Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub) – making the entirety of the story, essentially, a flashback – as well as black-and-white vignettes of Frank (post-surgery) recording a testament of the same. Side characters like Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), a girl Frank takes up with before and after events, set up some interesting emotional ping-ponging, and the rest of the movie is carried by an engaging performance from Rodriguez.
The whole thing certainly sounds questionable, but I agree with the Roger Ebert review that stands in general defense of the movie: it’s clear from the comic book style transitions, amped up score from Giorgio Moroder and Raney Shockne, the shlock style villainy of Weaver’s character, and professed desire from Walter Hill to have designed this as a B-movie that The Assignment is not trying to be anything more than that. It doesn’t meddle in Rodriguez’s gender swap for shock value – everyone pretty much takes it in stride over the course of the movie, and the fact that Rodriguez plays both roles, in some admirable but not-too-convincing prosthetics / fake beard as a male (to be clear – the body suit she wears is actually pretty awesome, but they didn’t go far enough to alter her walking style or hips / shoulders) suggests there was never any real attempt here at playing this off like a twist. And even given all of that, the movie also doesn’t wholly jump the other way and treat its plot device like a minor hiccup, which would render the movie more on the silly side of B-ness: there are still some interesting, well-handled (within character context) conversations on the effects of this for Frank, and on the Doctor’s maniacal motivations, and on keeping the focus of Frank’s revenge on the fact that he was targeted at all – not necessarily on the fact that he’s had some genitalia changes.
The wayward structure of the story is weird, though. Setting it up linearly would’ve made for more impact – because of the flashback style, we essentially know where it’s going – but I get that that would’ve given us much less screentime with Weaver, who’s fantastically entertaining in her role, with Shalhoub as an equally entertaining foil. So it’s a juggling act of acknowledging the cluttered arrangement while appreciating what we’re given in exchange. And although I’ve mentioned that the opening sections with Rodriguez in masculine makeup and body prosthetics are acceptably (given the tone of the flick) unconvincing, the actress does such a great job giving the post-surgery Frank some emotional inlets that I wish she’d done more to differentiate her pre-surgery take on the character.
So, yes, The Assignment is all kinds of janky. And in a lesser director’s hands, that jankiness likely would’ve caused the whole thing to fall apart right from the outset, but Walter Hill constructs something solid and consistently watchable from start to finish, and turns what reads like a horrible idea for a modern day movie into a fresh and fun bit of pulp.