Screenshot: The Assignment

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s staff and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on film and TV. 

One of my favorite things I’ve seen recently is The Assignment, a peculiar 1997 thriller directed by Christian Duguay as a follow-up to his economically accomplished (and quite faithful) Philip K. Dick adaptation Screamers. Not a perfect film, but the Byzantine plot makes a rich canvas for the B-movie paranoia that was Duguay’s forte for a time (his debut was Scanners II: The New Order, a direct-to-video sequel to the David Cronenberg film), with enough twisted Hitchcockian themes to compensate for some of its technical and budgetary shortcomings. Set in the mid-1980s, it stars Aidan Quinn in a bizarre dual role as the real-life terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (a.k.a. Carlos The Jackal, subject of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos) and Lt. Commander Annibal Ramirez, an American naval officer whose resemblance to the international fugitive is discovered when a Mossad team mistakenly nabs him while he’s out of uniform on shore leave.

Screenshot: The Assignment

Duguay’s direction is thrifty, but still eccentric, starting with a literal piss-take on the Spielberg-style one-shot sequence: an opening shot of Paris circa 1974 that cranes from a couple of schoolboys peeing in the street up through some special effects and straight into a sex scene. His Carlos is overtly sexy and monstrous, introduced perpetrating a grenade attack on a café (for which the real Carlos recently received a third life sentence) in a hippie disguise baldly modeled on Gary Oldman’s daytime look in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. So whenever the craft falls short (e.g., a cheaptastic version of the OPEC siege that looks like a ’90s true-crime show reenactment), the existential queasiness and serpentine plotting persevere.

Returning to the States after the Mossad incident, Lt. Commander Ramirez is slowly bullied by a veteran CIA spook, Shaw (Donald Sutherland), into taking part in a convoluted plan to trick the KGB into doing the agency’s dirty work by assassinating the real Carlos. Ramirez’ mission is to fool the Soviet contacts in Carlos’ network into thinking that the terrorist is secretly a CIA asset. Leaving behind his family, Ramirez is transported to a dilapidated compound where Shaw and a Mossad handler named Amos (Ben Kingsley) spend months basically turning him into Carlos The Jackal, conditioning him into the reflexes and always-alert mindset of a paranoid fugitive, quizzing him on minutiae on a full-sized apartment set (the number of cups and plates in a kitchen cabinet, the contents of a fridge), forcing him to eat their target’s least favorite foods until he also learns to hate them, dosing him with LSD.

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Screenshot: The Assinment

The idea behind this cross between Method acting and brainwashing is that Ramirez—a stubborn family man, the all-American son of an anti-Castro Cuban—won’t be able to get by on resemblance alone; he needs Carlos’ survival instincts and alpha-predatorial swagger. But the results are predictably fucked-up, conveyed by Duguay through visual and narrative reflections—an uncommon combination of very blunt filmmaking and strangely elaborate subtext.