Friday, April 7, 2017

Transphobic 'The Assignment' Is Too Inept To Deserve Much Outrage



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

The Assignment (also known as (Re)Assignment and Tomboy) is a terrible, ill-conceived, mess of a movie that, were its central premise not so tone-deaf, might have been bad enough to earn admittance into the "So Bad, It's Good" hall of fame, alongside such classics as Showgirls and The Room.

Apparently, director Walter Hill has been mulling The Assignment's story since the 1970's, and that in itself may prove a cautionary tale: If it's taken you almost 50 years to finally get your story made into a movie, it probably wasn't that great of a story to begin with.

That story centers on Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver, how could you?), who is being held at an insane asylum after everyone in her practice is massacred. Being the only survivor, they assume she is the culprit. She tells a different story to her therapist, (Tony Shaloub, how could you?), starting with the murder of her beloved brother by a hitman named Frank Kitchen. (KITCHEN?!)

Kitchen lives in the backstreets of "San Francisco," a gun for hire. I put San Francisco in quotes because this is one of those movies that is set in SF, but was clearly shot in Canada. We aren't even offered some measly insert shots of the Golden Gate Bridge or "Cable Cars" rolling in the background. Instead, we just have to trust that what we're seeing is the Tenderloin (which is apparently in Chinatown) because the movie says it is.

Frank Kitchen is played by Michelle Rodriguez, for reasons that will soon become apparent. In the meantime, she sports a fake beard and mustache that was probably purchased for a super discount at the local Spirit Store the day after Halloween, and, after a shower scene, a prosthetic penis that would make Dirk Diggler jealous.

After a double-cross by her mafia boss (Anthony LaPaglia, how... OK this casting makes sense), Frank is knocked unconscious, and following an indeterminate time, wakes up in a dirty hotel room, only to find his impressive penis has been replaced by a...vagina! He's also got some very real-looking breasts to go along with it.

All of this is the doing of mad doctor Kay, as revenge for the murder of her brother. She figures turning Frank into a woman can serve as both punishment and rehabilitation, because, of course, a woman would never allow herself to be a violent killer.

Dr. Kay offers some lip service about her utter "respect" for those seeking gender reassignment and for the doctors who perform the procedures, but this is just an obvious attempt by the writers to try and stave off criticisms of insensitivity to transgender issues. But, really, this is not a movie to be outraged about. It's too inept.

The notion that one's outward appearance can somehow change one's inner life, from bad to better, is a story well Walter Hill has been to before, in the 1989 crime drama Johnny Handsome. In that case, Mickey Rourke played a criminal who gets plastic surgery. That film barely worked, but it had the charisma of Rourke at his prime to propel it. Rodriguez is serviceable, and better as a man adjusting to living life in a woman's body, than she is as a woman pretending to be a man, which makes her casting in both roles merely a stunt that doesn't work. They could have just hired an actor to play the Frank Kitchen parts, and chalked up the complete cosmetic changes to the wonders of Dr. Kay, who is apparently skilled enough to perform scar-free surgery that requires no extensive rehabilitation time.

The Assignment has hints of a comic book style and fantastical feel, with a Sin City vibe. (In fact, Hill is behind a French graphic novel based on the film.) Some scenes end in comic book panel freeze frames, and there are a few shots photographed in black and white with splashes of red. But there's not enough of that. Maybe if Hill had pushed the fantasy world a little harder, like he did in The Warriors and Streets of Fire, The Assignment might have reached a more satisfying level of strangeness, one that would have made its problematic premise more overtly ridiculous, and thus more palatable.

The Assignment is currently playing at The Presidio, and is available to watch On Demand.

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