THE ASSIGNMENT: Walter Hill’s Gender Bending Contract Killer Thriller is a Trip

Can a movie still be kind of awesome when its central premise fails utterly?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Michelle Rodriguez wakes up in a seedy motel after having undergone forced gender reassignment surgery at the hands of a disgraced surgeon played by Sigourney Weaver. No? Haven’t heard that story before? That’s right. You definitely haven’t. And that’s a huge part of the fun to be had here with The Assignment. It’s just so bizarre and bold. Throw in the fact that it’s directed by legendary action auteur Walter Hill, and you’ve got yourself a bit of a must see release.

Though while yes, you do kind of have to see this movie if any of the above paragraph sounds appealing to you, it also has to be stated clearly that the central premise of The Assignment fundamentally does not succeed on a visual, story, or performance level. Michelle Rodriguez plays Frank Kitchen, a hitman with very little dimensionality of character beyond whatever exposition Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Rachel Jane blurts out about him. He’s a scumbag contract killer. And he never for one second looks anything other than Michelle Rodriguez with a beard glued to her face and a prosthetic penis. Yep, Michelle Rodriguez is walking around this movie with a big old swinging dick. And you have to respect that, no? It’s a… ballsy choice… ahem.

Rodriguez is a cool performer that I enjoy watching on screen from her early indie days like Girlfight to ultra-mega-super blockbusters like the Fast/Furious franchise and Avatar. She’s probably got as many box office dollars assigned to her filmography as any actress working today, and she seems to have a great time doing what she does. This role in The Assignment is a brave one to take on and I can’t quite imagine anyone else in the role. But that isn’t to say it’s a success. She’s utterly unconvincing as a man, and the whole movie hinges on that. As a female, she’s a perfectly solid lead… even as a female who has many masculine traits left over from her maleness. She just looks damn ridiculous as a male hitman, and one gets the sense that a lot more effort could have gone into selling this (a man-bun perhaps? A little more bulk to her frame? Hobbit-style forced perspective? I don’t know, just spit-balling here) crucial story element.

Really a full-on co-lead, Weaver gets almost as much screen time as Rodriguez. Sadly she’s confined to a straight jacket for significant portions of the runtime. And she’s largely part of an unfortunate framing device where she’s explaining the events of the film to Tony Shalhoub, who is interrogating her after the fact. It’s another weird and fun role, with Weaver commanding the screen as a male suit-wearing underground doctor with unorthodox beliefs. She’s basically a Batman villain, and there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. But due to the setup of the film’s script, she does a lot more telling than showing. It’s a talky role that only someone like Weaver could have breathed as much life into as she does.

The rest of the film is fairly workmanlike, which is unfortunate coming from a master like Walter Hill. But The Assignment feels like a case where the audacity of the premise and the talent attached to the project kind of supercede the ultimate quality of the film, making it a must see for Hill or Weaver fans. Aside from that premise, the film struggles. There’s not a whole lot of interesting exploration of gender identity, and the action isn’t particularly expertly executed (a definite bummer coming from one of cinema’s great action experts). Frank is bent on vengeance, and upon waking up in a gender-swapped state, he kind of just tries to kill everyone and see a doctor or two. There’s a little button of a twist all the way at the very end of the film which does take things a little darker, and I appreciated that. It’s just that whatever ideas are explored seem to be primarily exposited by Weaver’s crazy doctor character, ranting in a straight jacket to the audience. It’s not an engaging way to think about any of the issues the film might present, or any of the moral complexity the characters may have had.

If you’re stumbling across The Assignment at a Red Box, you’re probably going to be disappointed and quite frankly flummoxed. If you’re coming to it as a Walter Hill fan, or a film geek who knows the pure insanity of the premise of the film, then you probably want to see it anyway. For those who embrace the craziness of the swingin’ prosthetic penis in Walter Hill’s latest project, why haven’t you pressed play yet?

The Package

There’s some kind of single special feature on this one, but it’s largely a bare bones release. I suspect that’s because it’s a movie in which Michelle Rodriguez plays a hit man who is gender swapped and somehow the studio didn’t see wide release potential in this one. But who am I to presume? Again, if you’re buying this or renting it, you’re doing so to experience the insanity and the brilliance of Walter Hill… you probably didn’t need a million bonus features.

And I’m Out.

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