Thursday, April 06, 2017

Walter Hill’s The Assignment

How is a criminally insane plastic surgeon like the Islamist Iranian regime? They both perform unwelcome gender reassignment surgeries. While the Islamist mullahs do so out of homophobia, Dr. Rachel Jane does out for revenge. In more forgiving moments, she also sees at as opportunity for the hitman who killed her brother to find redemption in a new life and gender, but mostly it is just about payback. Of course, that means the former Frank Kitchen will have to get revenge for her revenge in Walter Hill’s The Assignment (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Kitchen is good at his job, so it rather irks him when San Francisco gangster Honest John double crosses him. However, it really pushes his nose out of joint when he wakes up as a woman. Apparently, he whacked Dr. Jane’s deeply indebted drug-addled brother, as well as a ne’er do well relative of Honest John—hence their alliance.

Despite the hormones, Kitchen is still the same stone cold killer inside, which is the whole point of the film. With the help of Johnnie, his incredibly understanding one-night-stand from a couple nights before, who conveniently happens to be a nurse, Kitchen recuperates to the point that the killer can kill again. Pronouns are really tricky with respect to Assignment, because Kitchen still identifies as male, but in any event, our lead character will start picking off Honest John’s lieutenants, working towards the gangster and the surgeon, who narrates the tale in media res from the comfort of her looney bin straight jacket.

It is tempting to defend Assignment just because it makes so many people apoplectic. In the current hyper-sensitive climate, the nobility and victimhood of transgender characters are sacrosanct. There is simply no room for a lurid pulp anti-hero like Kitchen. That is a shame, because the kneejerk chorus of boos has a chilling effect. Conceivably, it could make a serious film about Iranian forced gender reassignments harder to produce, as a for instance.

In this case, it also means Sigourney Weaver’s wonderfully campy scenery chewing as Dr. Jane gets thrown out with the bathwater. It is great fun to watch her quote Shakespeare and condescendingly talk down to her inferiors, which pretty much includes everybody. On the other hand, Michelle Rodriguez’s growling Frank Kitchen voice sounds utterly ridiculous. Still, her prosthetic chest hair and other stuff are sufficiently lifelike in pre-op scenes.

Hill helped define 1980s cinema with 48 Hours and Streets of Fire. He can still stage a decent action scene, but his pulp sensibility is sadly anachronistic in the age of the social justice warrior. The Assignment isn’t great (although Weaver sort of is), but it is far from the affront to humanity some make it out to be. Frankly, it is almost worth buying a ticket or dialing it up On-Demand just to assert your right to make that choice for yourself. Half-recommended, The Assignment opens tomorrow (4/7) in New York, at the Village East.