Monday, April 10, 2017

Frankie Pretty: “The Assignment” finds little pulpy fun in gonzo premise

The Assignment (2017)
95 min., rated R.

Formerly called “Tomboy” and then “(Re)Assignment,” transgendered revenge tale “The Assignment” is about a hitman becoming a hitwoman against his, now her, will. Though the film already garnered controversy by the political correctness police when it screened early at film festivals, it’s hard to say whether or not the film is actually “transphobic.” Sure, gender reassignment surgery is used as a punishment for its lead character, but even if the film came off reprehensible in its handling of transgender issues, nothing would change that it’s too talky, tacky, and leaden to reach critical mass as the entertaining B-picture it preferably wants to be. Credit “The Assignment” for the courageously off-color concept, but discredit it for the standard, underwhelming execution that actually does very little with said concept and never goes far enough. The hope for a gonzo, pulpy action-thriller just never becomes the reality.

San Francisco hitman Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) has been a very bad man. When he wakes up, he has involuntarily undergone gender reassignment surgery by a disgraced rogue surgeon, Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), who goes by “The Doctor” and obsesses over William Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe. Of course, now, Frank is a woman (still Michelle Rodriguez) as a reminder that he killed the surgeon’s brother. According to the surgeon, she proudly performed the surgery on Frank, giving him a new life away from the “macho prison” he’s been living in as a man. Frank is none too happy and goes on his/her way to seek revenge on Dr. Kay and everyone involved on her payroll, including crime boss “Honest John” (Anthony LaPaglia), and hopefully settling down with nurse Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), who hooked up with him/her pre-operation.

Like the kicker of Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In,” “The Assignment” invites a more transgressive film than the one writer-director Walter Hill (2013’s “Bullet to the Head”) and co-writer Denis Hamill ended up making. Though peppered with screen wipes and black-and-white panels ripped straight from a graphic novel, à la “Sin City,” it’s still never quite lurid or over-the-top enough to be a midnight-movie hoot, providing uninspired shoots-outs and too few gut-level thrills. The payback portion of the plot is bullet-ridden but drab, as there’s not much catharsis or any tension for the viewer to feel for Frank getting justice on those who double-crossed him.

With her voice more monotone than usual for hard-boiled voice-over, Michelle Rodriguez does fine with what she has, including a prosthetic penis and some laughably unconvincing facial hair when she’s still the male Frank Kitchen. Performed hammily with an icy composure by Sigourney Weaver in a straitjacket, the well-spoken but delusional and hubris-driven Dr. Kay is, by far, the more interesting character. She sees herself as an artist and sees gender as identity rather than biology. Her psychoanalysis and interrogation scenes with Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub) are sometimes fun to watch, but there is a lot of clunky expository dialogue to cover when it's meant to gain insight into Dr. Kay's twistedly highfalutin mind. Even B-movies attempt and sometimes succeed at sneaking in a comment on something of social value, but “The Assignment” doesn’t choose to do this. A depth-free, purely-good-times B-movie is all well and fine, as long as there is something more to recommend it, but there’s not. This is junk and not even the fun kind.


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