Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Caitlin Gerard, Anthony LaPaglia. Directed by Walter Hill. Rated R. 95 minutes. 2017.
Walter Hill’s The Assignment is interesting to observe as a movie whose foundation is built upon a premise of obvious misguidedness but that ultimately doesn’t do anything with said premise. Much will be and has been made about that premise, but we’ll get there in a second. It’s worth some build-up, too, because this is a movie that will strike at a primal nerve within a certain, underserved part of the marginalized community in our country (and those abroad who might see it). It is also a movie that leads into a second half that is only notable for how uninteresting it is, especially in the wake of a first act that is, certainly, quite interesting. It’s a film quite literally of two halves – of a first that is off-putting in ways that are constantly being discovered by the viewer and of a second that settles into a stale routine. It gets better as it becomes more familiar.
Now let’s get to the premise, because that’s the thing that will embroil and has embroiled the film in controversy leading to its release: Michelle Rodriguez plays Frank Kitchen, a male assassin who is “punished” with forced gender reassignment surgery after a hit ended up being personal for our primary antagonist. That would be Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), whose motivation is almost entirely indecipherable, even after she lays it out in a speech. Much of her screen time is spent with Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub), who performs psychoanalysis that seems completely useless. The plot has Frank finding and revenging himself upon the people who made him into a woman, and yes, it seems prudent to misgender intentionally a character who spends the duration wanting to get back to his ideal self.
That’s the trickiest element of Hill’s screenplay (co-written by Denis Hamill): The desire to retain the simple compassion of referring to the correct gender of a transgender male-to-female person (which, for the uninitiated, is by way of “she/her” pronouns) is at constant odds with a plot that expends a lot of energy upon believing that a forced transition like this is a fate merely a step above death on the scale of desirability. It’s even stranger given the casting of Rodriguez, even if this is the only actress who could pull off a role this tricky. Rodriguez does a serviceable job, both in the early segments of the film as a man (Yes, we get a series of close-ups involving Frank’s manhood, both of the physiology and in the throes of passion) and after the reassignment surgery. The problem is the character, who remains in the service of mercenary killings and ceases to be interesting as soon as he gets over the shock of having breasts, a vagina, and a lot of hormonal supplements to take.
That’s when the plot proper kicks in, and it’s hard to imagine that the screenplay could withstand much more expository dialogue than what this film has in store for its viewers. Almost every sentence is an establishing declaration of the plot’s forward movement, and there’s really nothing here that’s of much interest: Frank follows the bread crumbs straight to each of the people on crime boss “Honest John” Baconian’s (Anthony LaPaglia) payroll, then faces down the good doctor in a final ten minutes that seems rushed to conclude all of the various subplots, which also include a romance of sorts for Frank with a nurse named Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard). It’s really not very involving stuff, although the weird case of this stretch of The Assignment being better than what came before is complicated by the fact that, before this stretch, at least something interesting was happening.