Movie Review: A career ends with a trainwreck, “The Assignment”

Perhaps your first reaction upon stumbling onto “The Assignment” was the same as mine.

“How did THIS trainwreck escape my notice?” in 2016-17 when it was released?

But right there in the opening credits, we see that “Warriors” and “48 Hours” and “Wild Bill” director Walter Hill is in charge. And it’s showing us a solid B-list cast that includes Sigourney Weaver, Anthony LaPaglia and Tony Shaloub.

And hell, it’s not every day that star Michelle Rodriguez gets to play full frontal nudity scenes as a male, and a female.

Yes, this is “that” movie, one labeled “transphobic” thanks to its subject matter — a hitman (Rodriguez) kills the wrong person, and wakes up a trans woman thanks to a skilled and vengeful sex change surgeon (Weaver).

The protests over this seem misguided, but I’m not transgender and can make no claim to extra sensitivities on the subject. You look at that cast and you know there’s no way they saw it those terms.

It’s just a very bad movie, so bad that it probably ended an aged action director’s career, as Hill’s “Dead for a Dollar,” his follow up, was filmed and is still listed as in post production five years later.

If, like me, you saw “The Warriors” and found it a life-changing film, you can see straight off what Hill, who co-scripted this, was going for. He did “Johnny Handsome,” a criminally-neglected modern film noir that’s well worth tracking down. It’s about a career criminal, a born underling, whose life is changed when a plastic surgeon (Forest Whitaker) transforms him into Mickey Rourke.

But everything about this story goes wrong, almost from the start. The opening tough guy voice over doesn’t sell it or Rodriguez as a hardboiled, soul dead contract killer. Michael Shannon’s “Iceman” is the definitive, realistic archetypal mob murderer-for-hire.

Just meeting Rodriguez as Frank Kitchen renders the film “nothing I’m sitting through this” in those first scenes, “full frontal” or not.

The frame of the movie is a shrink (Shaloub) interviewing the straight-jacketed, imprisoned doctor (Weaver) who did the deed. She’s in prison, telling a story.

That’s deathly dull. And no matter how many flashbacks, not wholly artless in their execution, can overcome that duller than dull framework, the banal dialogue, the sense that a lot of people involved maybe had second thoughts about the whole enterprise (perhaps they did decide it was transphobic) once filming got under way.

As Hill was a producer on the original “Alien” franchise and is widely credited as the smart cookie who said “Let’s make Ripley a woman,” thus ensuring its place as a landmark sci-fi/horror thriller and making Weaver a full fledged film star, we can see how “Assignment” came together.

But the question it never fully answers is why?

This had any number of ways it could have been improved in script and pre-production planning. Have Frank Kitchen make the decision to undergo the sex change to escape those hunting him down is a start. Introduce Rodriguez as the post sex-change Frank, sexually active and still into women, perhaps seeing the need to cover her tracks by killing off anybody who knows her secret.

Yes, transgender characters can be villains. And shifting the movie to the present day would limit Rodriguez’s scenes as a somewhat unconvincing man, thinning out the flashbacks where that is necessary.

But again, going back to “Johnny Handsome,” I see what Hill saw in this idea and its not as dubious as it seems in this form.

Scene after scene of that underworld milieu (LaPaglia is right at home there) is rendered laughable by “Frank” not convincing anyone he’s butch enough to be a butcher.

Hill made a science fiction film (“Event Horizon”) that was so bad he took his name off it. This is, if anything, worse. This isn’t “Peeping Tom,” a daring if misguided and transgressive thriller that ended the career of Michael Powell (“Black Narcissus,” “The Red Shoes”). It’s a disaster that just besmirches the memory of films from “Hard Times” and “The Driver” to “Southern Comfort” and “Last Man Standing.” Damned shame Walter Hill had to go out like this, “transphobic” or not.

Rating: R for graphic nudity, violence, sexuality, language and drug use

Cast: Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shaloub, Anthony LaPaglia

Credits: Directed by Walter Hill, scripted by Walter Hill and Denis Hamill. A Saban Films release on Tubi, other streamers

Running time: 1:35

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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