FILM REVIEW – THE ASSIGNMENT. With Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Caitlin Gerard, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony LaPaglia. Written by Denis Hamill and Walter Hill. Directed by Walter Hill. Rated R for graphic nudity, violence, sexuality, language and drug use. 95 minutes.
A few years ago, former Boston-based film critic Nat Segaloff wrote a book called Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors. In it, he looked at the final works of filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and many others. What he found was that some had great works at the ends of their careers, others had films best left forgotten, and still others had curios that hearkened back to some of their earlier career.
Walter Hill, the director and co-writer of THE ASSIGNMENT–which is newly-released on Video-on-Demand and select theaters–caught a lot of attention with his third film, “The Warriors” and then had a huge hit with “48 Hrs.” Now 75, he’s been busier as one of the producers on the “Alien” film series, including the upcoming “Alien: Covenant.” As director, his last outing was the Sylvester Stallone flop “Bullet to the Head” four years ago. So this may not be his last film, but it would seem his days as a hot director are long behind him.
However, that’s not at all the same thing as saying his films aren’t worth seeing. “The Assignment” is a real curiosity and is probably destined for cult status, much like “The Warriors.” We first meet Frank Kitchen checking into a seedy hotel, and being approached by “Honest John” Hartunian (Anthony LaPaglia) to perform a hit job. A short while later, Hartunian says Frank is no longer needed, and has him knocked out. When he comes to, he is no longer a he. Frank has been turned into a woman (Michelle Rodriguez) by a mysterious surgeon known as the Doctor (Sigourney Weaver).
In the present, the Doctor is a straitjacketed prisoner at a mental hospital, being questioned by Dr. Galen (Tony Shalhoub) to see if she’s sane enough to stand trial. As she relates her story in flashback, it turns out that there are a lot of dead bodies, but no evidence that Frank Kitchen ever existed. The various mysteries are worked out, but we follow the two tracks separately, going back and forth in time.
In some ways this a conventional revenge thriller, stripped down to its bare essentials. The kicker is the forced sex change. Althought Rodriguez plays Frank before and after the change (with a not-very-convincing beard), there is sufficient nudity involving either special effects or a body double to get the point across that Frank has been altered. It is noted that the Doctor’s actions are is not intended as a commentary on real life transsexuals, because–in this case–it was done against his will. Now, hiding out with a nurse and part-time hooker named Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), this is the sort of spare action film that Hill was doing at the start of his career in movies like “Hard Times” and “The Driver.”
With an economy of style and a surprisingly strong cast for this kind of material, Hill delivers a taut 95 minutes of suspense and vengeance, as Frank tracks down the people responsible for his/her predicament, while the Doctor plays mind games with Galen for reasons that don’t become clear until the very end of the movie. Obviously “The Assignment” is not going to be for every taste, but if this is Hill’s final film as director, it’s of a piece with his body of work.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.