Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Walter Hill again: The Assignment

I already did some writing on the theme of "what the hell happened to Walter Hill?" I still haven't figured it out, how someone who made some of the great American action movies of the 1970's ended up where he now is, making what are very much B-movies, almost utterly lacking in the charm and craft of his classic work. I still revere his classic films (Hard Times,  The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort) and can find things to enjoy about his one bad 1970's film (The Driver) or his lesser 80's and 90's output (48 Hours, Streets of Fire, Tresspass; I may even revisit Johnny Handsome one of these days). Overall, though, it's puzzling to me. With involvement as a producer on one of the most successful franchises ever, Hill seems like he should have the money, influence and power in the American film system to basically go his own way, and - catching up with his 2016 film The Assignment (also known as Tomboy, on IMDB) - it does seem like that's what he's doing; the film is eccentric in ways that suggest he's calling his own shots. For example, you know his "director's cut" of The Warriors, which introduces those unwelcome cuts to comic book panels at the end of each scene, and substitutes a good number of the films transitions for something akin to flipping a comic book page?

That's all over The Assignment, too. (It is one possible answer to the original question of what the hell happened: Hill apparently really got into comic books, and/or decided that film was or should be an extension of them). There is even a comic book version of the story, co-written by Hill before he made the film, and originally only available in France (which makes me wonder if Hill has been hanging out with Jodorowsky or something, but I have no idea).

That the story existed in comic book form prior to being made into a movie may explain some of what's wrong with it. There's a clumsy cutting-back-and-forth between two levels of narrative, which might work a lot better on the printed page than in a movie, since the comic book reader has a bit more of an authorial role in how lines are read and scenes imagined, contributing more to the work of assembling the story for him/herself. The less effective, much talkier layer has a psychiatrist (played by Tony Shalhoub, whom I like) interviewing an arrogant "rogue" plastic surgeon (played by Sigourney Weaver, whom I neither like nor dislike, but who can certainly do good work). Weaver has been declared insane and committed, and has to read some of the clunkiest lines in the film, illustrating her arrogance and elitism with references to Poe and Shakespeare, lording it over Shalhoub for not getting them. Shalhoub, in turn, has to report his interactions with her to a superior, compounding the talkiness of these sequences and making explicit what was already none-too-subtle. There is simply much more of this than is necessary for progressing the narrative, and elements of it seem so undercooked - like Weaver telling Shalhoub she insisted her bodyguards dressed in dark suits with white shirts, which she bought for them - that they could easily have been left out of the film altogether. That scene, as it plays, reads as Hill justifying a resort to visual cliche in how his characters present themselves (something even Frank Miller - who I generally don't like and don't have an interest in - is smart enough not to do; it's akin to having someone in The Driver explain why The Driver doesn't have a name). Come to think of it, the whole framing device reminds me of a much better film, in fact made by a Hill alum, the late, great Bill Paxton. His superb Gothic horror film Frailty handles its layers much more effectively.

It's a shame, because the other layer of the story - about a (male) hitman named Frank Kitchen, played by Michelle Rodriguez, who is abducted, rendered unconscious, non-consensually gender-transitioned by Weaver, and left to figure out what happened and/or get revenge - is much more interesting. It isn't without problems: it serves at the backstory to the story Weaver tells, but confusingly seems to vie with the Weaver narrative as a framing device, since it in fact begins the film. Since the story Weaver tells is not in fact the Rodriguez one - which contains tons of elements that Weaver was not present for - and since the story of Weaver is mostly unknown to Rodriguez, and happening after the fact, we have what ultimately seem to be two stories embedded in each other, definitely related, but neither of which are being told by either of the film's narrators. (This is very confusing to explain and a little less objectionable on screen, but still irritating). And the Rodriguez "layer" also has an element of its own explicit narration, as in a scene where Rodriguez recaps what is happening to her in a video, in case we've missed something. There are also some weirdly clunky edits (as when, about 21 minutes into the film, Rodriguez throws a tantrum and tires, the scene seemingly coming to an end, after which, the film cuts back to her throwing a tantrum again, with nothing in-between: this seems to violate a basic rule of film editing, that if you're going to let a scene come to an end and cut away from it, don't cut back to it going on again). It's a mess, overall, but there is good stuff in it - especially the performance by Rodriguez.

I don't know why Michelle Rodriguez isn't an A-list star in Hollywood, frankly. It seems unfair enough that I am tempted - again knowing nothing of the actual history here - to cry racism or sexism or something. She can carry a movie - as anyone who has seen her excellent debut feature, Girlfight, will know. Maybe it's daunting to people that she began her career with a performance so tough?

Mostly she seems to have done support roles in action films, since then. She's always welcome onscreen, by me, but nothing I've seen her in since Girlfight (like the surfer movie Blue Crush, which I saw because she was in it, or the Machete films, or the Resident Evil or Fast and Furious films she appears in) has really impressed me that much; she's always good - least convincing when she's happy and feminine, as in Blue Crush, and seeming more comfortable when glowering with body armour and a gun - but she's never the lead, that I've seen, which always seems a waste.

She does have (sort of) the lead role of The Assignment, and her performance is the best thing about it. It's a demanding, maybe even ridiculous, role that she sells: she credibly plays a straight male hitman, then plays a man who finds himself suddenly (and unwantedly) occupying a woman's body. Which doesn't mean she ever plays a woman: she remains a man throughout the performance, with the gestures and expressions and vocal cues of masculinity throughout. These are broadly conveyed - as when, in a scene reminiscent of Oldboy, she wakes up in a grotty hotel room to discover her condition, stripping off bandages to inspect her naked and newly-female body in horror. We've been shown - in Rodriguez's nude scene as a male - that he had quite a large dick, which we can infer he was fond of; his discovery that it has been swapped out is quite traumatic, but it is a masculine trauma we see on screen (presumably an element in the apparently negative reception of the film among transgendered people, but I don't want to get into that; the film is hard enough to get through, because of the levels and degrees of incompetence in its assembly, without also analyzing it politically - though I am sure it could also be politically defended, if you were of a mind to do that).

In any case, Rodriguez remains believably male throughout her performance. You may feel your disbelief straining at all this, but compared to the rest of the film, it works quite well, enough so that you'll be impatient to get back to him/her, frustrated when we cut away to more of the same chatter between Shalhoub and Weaver. There's an interesting story buried here, overwhelmed, overcomplicated, irritatingly assembled, and overall undercooked. If Hill had chosen to tell the story in a more linear fashion, from Kitchen's point of view, while keeping the reveal of what happened to the end - well, true, Park Chan Wook (and Spike Lee) might have been unhappy about it, since it would basically be Oldboy with revenge-driven gender-bending substituting for incest. But it would be a pretty original and powerful exploitation film, and might actually work as a movie, albeit a derivative one.

It does NOT work, as it is; it's a mess. But it is a mess I'm kind of enjoying sorting through, and for those at all curious, there's one other reason to see it that I can offer - besides a general curiosity about Hill's weird trajectory, an attraction to oddball exploitation cinema, and a liking of Michelle Rodriguez: it's filmed in Vancouver, apparently mostly around Chinatown and East Van (the Ovaltine cafe is clearly visible in one shot). Had I known Walter Hill was shooting in Vancouver in 2015 I would have tried to track him down and get my Southern Comfort blu-ray signed (though I would probably have kept my mouth shut as to the question of why he can't seem to make a movie that good again. I'd love it if he did, but it's going to take some rave reviews, at this point, to lure me back to his cinema).

Oh, and for the record, the disc of The Assignment is reasonably cheap, too, having been part of a big Mongrel Media markdown going on at Sunrise Records; while it was $20 or more last month, depending on your chosen format, you can now find it on DVD for 2/ $10 or on blu at 2/ $20, which you now have to pair with a similarly stickered item (a pain in the ass; I liked it better when all Sunrise's $6.99 items were 2/ $10 and all their $12.99 items were 2/ $20, but presumably, that was making it too easy for customers to shop there).

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