My World of Flops Case File #110/My Year of Flops II #7: The Assignment (2016)
The world has changed immeasurably between 1978, when a screenplay called Tomboy was written by journalist Denis Hamil about a juvenile delinquent who is punished for his murderous transgressions by a revenge-hungry cosmetic surgeon with an unwanted gender reassignment surgery, and 2016, when, after revisions from director Walter Hill, Hamil’s bad, bad idea was unfortunately realized as 2016’s disastrously received, massively unpopular The Assignment.
One of the ways in which the world has changed most dramatically is in terms of trans rights, visibility and representation in all forms of American life, but particularly in terms of pop culture. We are, thankfully, far more sensitive and considerate where trans issues are concerned than we once were.
We’ve still got a ways to go, but thank God the days when filmmakers could thoughtlessly portray the LGTBQ community overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, as self-loathing lunatics, serial killers and murderers without raising some kind of public outcry appear to be at an end. We’ve evolved so much as a society, in fact, that it’s honestly more than a little bewildering that a movie like The Assignment can even exist.
Hill might have been able to get away with depicting existing in a female body as a brutal and sadistic form of punishment and gender reassignment as a cheap, vulgar, pulpy plot point in 1978, before AIDS, before gay marriage, before Caitlyn Jenner, before sexuality was understood as an almost unfathomably complicated and rich spectrum, and not a mere matter of straight or gay, male or female.
We’ve evolved, y’all. The various drafts of The Assignment did not keep pace. There are so many reasons for this movie not to exist. Only about half of them are political or ideological. The rest are artistic in nature, starting with giving the pre-gender-reassigned protagonist/anti-hero Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) a beard that looks like it was inspired more by those Woolly Willy magnetic facial hair toys than facial hair a human being not wearing a cheap Halloween costume might actually sport.
Rodriguez looks distractingly ridiculous and unconvincing as a dude, even before she hangs even more distractingly unconvincing dong later in the film. There are many, many places where the people involved should have taken a good long look at what they were doing, what it meant and how it would be received and stopped for the sake of decency and for their own sake. One of these moments should have been when they photographed Rodriguez with her beard for the first time.
That Rodriguez spends a half hour of the movie looking like she’s glued pubic hairs to her cheeks and chin should have been a deal-breaker even if the premise somehow was not. The Assignment would need to be very artful, very sensitive and extremely nuanced to pull off a premise so screamingly offensive and painfully dated. Hill isn’t interested in being sensitive or nuanced, however. For him, this is just another b-movie, no different, really, than the thematically similar Johnny Handsome, a juicy bit of pulp with an obscenely, appealingly lurid central conceit. The problem is that the issues that The Assignment raises and then deals with in the most perfunctory manner possible are too big, and too sensitive, and too fundamentally serious, for a movie this grubby and small.
Rodriguez stars as the aforementioned Kitchen, a lowlife exemplar of toxic masculinity who ekes out a dirty living murdering people for money. He’s a bad, bad man in a bad, bad realm of small-time criminals, dirty doctors and drugged-up, amoral hedonists. Then one day Frank murders the wrong person. He kills the degenerate playboy brother of Dr. Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver).
The not so good doctor’s crimes are many. Her delusions are vast, her morality hopelessly warped. She is a mad scientist of the brain and body, an arrogant sociopath who talks in highbrow quotations and sees humanity as an insignificant scourge to be trifled with and abused any way she sees fit. For me, Dr. Rachel Jane’s worst transgression involves cos-playing as Dr. Hannibal Lector every moment of her miserable, insultingly over-written existence.
I have never, in my many years writing sloppily and self-indulgently about film, seen a character more obsessed with being a gender-flipped version of Anthony Hopkins’ cultured cannibal. If you could copyright a character’s essence Weaver would need to cut Hopkins a big old check although that would imply the movie grossed over a half million dollars at the box office, which The Assignment did not.
The very definition of “way too extra”, Jane clearly fancies herself a bit of a Josef Mengele type. Only instead of experimenting on concentration camp patients, the mad doctor decides to change Frank Kitchen’s gender to see whether having breasts and a vagina will cause him to change his life and career path as well, possibly by trading in murder for hire for an assistant professorship in Gender Studies at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest or a new start as a kindergarten teacher. Or will a glowery, monosyllabic cold-hearted killer continue to be a one-person murder machine post-gender reassignment surgery?
Early in the film Jane tells a doctor played by a never-worse Tony Shalhoub, “Poe once wrote an essay called ‘The Philosophy of Composition.’ In it he develops his theories about proper art being indifferent to moral and political considerations, that real art was about its own dynamic inner relationships, able to stand on style alone.”
In this unfortunately representative bit of dialogue, Hill seems to be speaking through his most odious and evil character, to be defending the movie from charges of transphobia and cultural insensitivity on the basis of style and entertainment and free expression. Yet style is precisely what’s lacking in this oddly inert misfire from a consummate visual stylist and auteur.
I’m not sure style could redeem a project as misbegotten as this but it sure wouldn’t hurt. Instead we get endless talky scenes of Weaver and Shalhoub seated in chairs as they reel off pages upon pages of exposition-heavy dialogue, continually telling each other things they already know for the sake of the audience.
Talky and insufferable as they might be, the Dr. Green sequences at least distract from the half of the film devoted to Frank Kitchen waking up to discover that where he once had a penis he now has a vagina, and enacting revenge on a small army of interchangeable heavies.
Does being in a woman’s body change Frank? Is this one of those gender-bending movies, like Tootsie, or Switched, about a boorish pig whose perspective on life, and particularly women, changes forever once they start walking the proverbial mile in women’s shoes literally as well as metaphorically? Yes, I suppose, but only to the extent that Frank is now a little less cavalier about murdering people. Being a woman doesn’t make this bad seed good, only slightly less terrible and sociopathic.
The role of Frank Kitchen, macho man turned unwitting and unwilling woman, is a challenging one. Rodriguez, alas, is too one-note a performer to be convincing as either a stoic man of violence or an accidental woman out for revenge. It’s not a promising sign that the all-important reveal where our protagonist discovers that they now possess a very attractive woman’s body inspires great gales of unintentional laughter..
Given the film’s tone-deafness, it’s probably a good thing that it plays the premise relatively straight, that post-operation Frank spends most of his time killing people instead of engaging in more conventionally feminine endeavors.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Hill says that “The only rules (his producer) laid down was that it'd have to be made for very cheap, and there had to be some name value in the cast.” The Assignment has a big old movie star in Weaver and was clearly filmed cheaply and quickly. Considering that Hill has directed only one other feature film (2012’s Bullet in the Head) in the seventeen years since 2002’s terrific Undefeated it’s entirely possible that the legendary director of The Warriors and 48 Hours made a bad b-movie with a deeply offensive premise because it was the only thing he could get made.
In that light, the movie’s title takes on a sad, telling connotation. Hill was too good for this assignment, really, but it seems like the only one he could get made this deep into his career.
In an interview with Film Comment around the time of the film’s release, Hill proudly insists, "This movie totally comes out of the same animus as my Tales From the Crypt shows. I mean, these are nasty people, caught in a nasty situation, that out of the experience are somewhat chastened and wiser for it. Assuming they survive—not all survive! Which was certainly out of the old EC Comics. So it's a very small movie, but it's a king-size Tales from the Crypt.”
Hill is not wrong, necessarily. Like Johnny Handsome, which I wrote about much more positively recently for Control Nathan Rabin 4.0, this does feel a lot like the grubby, hard-boiled, non-supernatural episode of Tales from the Crypt. But it feels like a very bad, very off, very tired episode of the beloved horror anthology, one with the misfortune to take on serious, controversial issues it’s way too pulpy, lurid and intentionally vulgar to be remotely equipped to deal with responsibly, or really at all.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure
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