There are three things worth knowing about Walter Hill’s wacky pulp exercise The Assignment. The first is that the film’s macho, quasi-anti-heroic protagonist, a hit man named Frank Kitchen, is played by Michelle Rodriguez (notably not a man), at first with the aid of a fake beard, a carpet of Sean Connery-esque chest hair, and a glorious prosthetic dong. The second is that Frank’s nemesis and tormentor, the megalomaniacal plastic surgeon Dr. Rachel Kay, is played by Sigourney Weaver in what has to be her hammiest performance, and that she narrates the film from the confines of a straitjacket. The third is that the plot, which is a mess, finds the evil Dr. Kay taking revenge on Frank by way of a forced sex reassignment surgery that makes him look like Michelle Rodriguez. The Assignment has a point to make about identity, and it sticks to its guns (literally and figuratively) by refusing to make any change to Frank’s persona or Rodriguez’s raspy drag performance. (A nice touch: In an attempt to disguise himself as a woman post-surgery, he dons a wig despite having his own shoulder-length hair.) There is transgressive potential in packaging this as super-sleazy exploitation, complete with a burbling synth soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder and Raney Shockne. But perhaps there is a fourth thing worth knowing about The Assignment, and that’s the fact that it has no clue what it’s going for.
Calling it disappointing would be an understatement. For the longest time, Hill was one of the maestros of the American genre film, and he has tackled this sort of pulp fairy tale before, in films like Johnny Handsome and Streets Of Fire. Those were at least consistent—and Johnny Handsome, in which a disfigured criminal returns for revenge after undergoing an operation to look like the pre-plastic-surgery Mickey Rourke, stands as one of Hill’s more under-appreciated movies. But The Assignment is a bricolage of wretched storytelling ideas, from black-and-white video diary entries by Frank to comic-book-panel freeze frame transitions in the manner of Hill’s decades-later director’s cut of The Warriors. The script, by Hill and New York Daily News columnist Denis Hamill, was written in the 1970s under the title Tomboy. (The film was called (Re)Assignment when it played festivals last year.) One would guess that no trans people were consulted on the finished product, which is outdated but not completely wrongheaded. The fact that Frank’s snooze-inducing underworld vengeance can barely maintain viewer interest actually lends The Assignment a modicum of integrity as a dysphoria narrative. The key point is that Dr. Kay doesn’t turn Frank into a woman, but a man forced into a woman’s body.
So perhaps the film isn’t the great existentialist thriller of Hill’s career (that would be The Driver), though there is something to be said for its blatant bogusness—from the matter of the intractably male hero being played by a woman to the fact that The Assignment is set in San Francisco, but was shot in the X-Files-ian nowhere-land of Vancouver. It’s a very silly movie, packed with nudity, questionably realistic medical science, and overwritten supervillain dialogue. But when it all comes down to it, it’s just another so-so revenge tale about generic mobsters and henchmen pointing guns at each other in under-lit nondescript rooms. Perhaps that’s the point. One just wishes that Hill still knew how to mount a shoot-out. He used to be one of the best.
Note: Saban Films is owned by Saban Capital Group, a part owner of Univision Communications, the parent company of Fusion Media Group, which owns The A.V. Club.