Cinema Review: The Assignment | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, July 2nd, 2020  

The Assignment

Studio: Saban Films
Directed by Walter Hill

Apr 04, 2017 Web Exclusive
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It’s a wonder a movie like The Assignment can be made today; beyond its obvious, sticky issues with gender identity, the concept alone feels too absurd to greenlight. The hook says it all, really: a dangerous mob assassin is given an unwilling sex change, and then goes on a violent murder spree to take vengeance on the mad doctor who performed the operation. From premise to execution, The Assignment feels like one of those sleazy, low-budget exploitation movies you’d have seen lining video shelves in the 1980s. (Imagine it with badly-painted sleeve art and a sensational tagline. Something like “He was double-crossed… Now she wants revenge!”) Perhaps you might see a movie like this one as a cheapie, direct-to-streaming release made with nobodies on a shoestring budget, but The Assignment is all the more baffling because it stars well-known commodities like Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, and Tony Shalhoub, and appears to have had a modicum of financing.

In The Assignment – previously titled (re)Assignment, ugh – nefarious hitman Frank Kitchen is summoned to San Francisco for a big-paying whack job. Before the gig is even underway, his mobster client shows up with a change of heart and a platoon of goons. A few wallops to the head with a heavy, blunt object later, Frank wakes up in a seedy hotel room with memory loss and a surprise set of ladyparts. Inside a purse near the bed, the new Frank finds several containers of hormone pills, a wad of cash, and a recording from a mysterious doctor, suggesting the former assassin looks at their forced sex swap as a new lease on life, and a chance at redemption. That won’t fly for Frank, though, who loved being a bad dude. (Emphasis on “dude.”) Frank wants revenge.

The comedy is in the casting.  Female Frank Kitchen is played by Michelle Rodriguez, and she's your typical, tough Michelle Rodriguez character. Male Frank Kitchen is played by Michelle Rodriguez with a fake beard. When the transformation happens (only about 15 minutes into the movie), it doesn’t come across as if the character suddenly changes into the more vulnerable character the movie seems to intend; the female Frank Kitchen feels way more cool and dangerous than the drag version. That’s because Michelle Rodriguez has always been tough as nails. She’s practically the go-to actor if you’re a Hollywood producer looking to cast a no-bullshit, butt-kinking lady badass. Her established action persona is as hard as any male action star’s. (Hell, I’d pick her in a backyard fistfight over almost any of the Expendables.) When Frank Kitchen removes the surgeon’s bandages and we see it’s the Michelle Rodriguez we've come to know and love, there’s no real sense of shock. Instead, we think something like “Oh, shit, Michelle Rodriguez. Those guys are so screwed now.”

Once you’re over that initial bit of backwardness, however, the laughing is over. The Assignment is a revenge thriller of the most worn-out variety, where each step on the road to vengeance can be seen coming from a long distance. The writing is terrible, with nothing in terms of character development, let alone competent storytelling. The plot unfolds like it’s going through the motions, as the two main characters – Rodriguez’s killer, and Weaver’s mad doctor – usher the audience along from scene to scene with expository voiceover narratives. In Weaver’s case, her character is being psycho-analyzed by an asylum shrink played by Tony Shalhoub: she haughtily quotes  Shakespeare and Poe like she’s studying for an AP English test, and plays elementary mind games with her doc like a dollar store Hannibal Lecter. Meanwhile, Rodriguez keeps us up to speed on her character’s inner motivations by recording video confessionals – video confessionals, damn it – in a Jersey (joy-zee) accent that’s downright painful. (She sounds like a beginner improv student who was tasked by the audience with cooking up an impromptu Italian mob boss character.) Once you get past the recognizable faces, everything else about the movie’s production values feels cheap.

When you learn that The Assignment was made by Walter Hill – the legendary director of much better b-movies, namely The Warriors – from a screenplay he’d read all the way back in 1978, it starts to make a little more sense. In the hands of a better writer, perhaps the idea could have at least found something clever to say about the gender roles of action cinema. As is, though, you have to ask: what’s the point? When the character doesn’t change anything more than on a purely cosmetic level, why even bother with the gender swap? Was there any purpose in doing so, other than to devote a not-at-all-insignificant amount of runtime to full frontal shots of Rodriguez groping herself in a mirror and looking confused? It’s hard to imagine much more thought was put into it than that.

Garbage. Garbage. Garbage. 

Author rating: 1/10

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