‘The Assignment’: an offensive disappointment

‘The Assignment’: an offensive disappointment

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“The Assignment,” opening April 7 at AMC Cherry Hill, has already upset the trans community for its “high-concept” plot about Dr. Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver), performing an unwanted gender-reassignment surgery on hit man Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez).

The uproar, which is not unjustified, concerns two issues: first, that the film’s idea of gender-reassignment surgery is an act of punishment; and second, that the Kitchen character was not played by a trans actress. However, director Walter Hill and co-screenwriter Denis Hamill seem more impressed with the idea of their film than doing any justice to its execution.

“The Assignment” is a down-and-dirty revenge flick that wants to be a cross between a film noir and a graphic novel. There are times when the shots freeze into comic-book-y panels, and the film features an appropriate seediness (even if that’s Canada standing in for San Francisco’s Tenderloin). But the film’s style only seems to mask its lack of substance.

The opening voice-over has Frank lying bandaged after the unexpected sex change. He says, “I’ve killed a lot of guys — and you’re not supposed to kill people. What happened to me is a lot better than I deserve. It took me a long time to work that out. In the meantime, I just want to get even.”

The points Frank makes play out in the film’s first act. He’s a hit man who is assigned by Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia) to kill Sebastian (Adrian Hough), who owes a large sum of money. Frank does this, but Sebastian’s murder upsets his sister, Dr. Rachel Jane, who exacts revenge by changing Frank’s gender. Frank, of course, wants payback once he realizes what happened to him.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jane’s story unfolds in a Mendocino psychiatric facility where she is in a straightjacket for her interviews with Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub). Dr. Jane has being performing illegal, off-the-books surgery in her clinic after losing her medical license. She’s under observation after being found shot in her illegal lab. Dr. Jane treats Dr. Galen with withering disdain, and is given to quoting Shakespeare to show how clever she is. These scenes should be compelling, but they feel contrived.

As Frank’s story continues, he checks into a Tenderloin hotel and takes a shower so the film can show, with graphic full-frontal nudity, that Frank indeed has a penis. Seeing Rodriguez, who plays Frank as a man with a full beard, wearing some kind of false front — and this refers to his hairy chest (hiding the actress’ breasts) — is distracting. But the penis is shown so that, a few scenes later, when he wakes up with women’s breasts and his penis removed, Frank can scream “Noooo!” in horror. It is a campy moment when Frank examines his (now her) naked body in front of a mirror. That she soon leaves the seedy room barefoot and in a bathrobe only adds to the unintentional hilarity.

“The Assignment” is not meant to be funny, but it has many head-scratching moments. Chief among them is Frank’s relationship with Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), a young nurse he picks up one night for sex. After he becomes a she, Frank calls Johnnie and asks to move in with her. It may be “progressive” that this couple makes love regardless of Frank’s gender, but what makes little sense is that there is no real discussion between them about what has transpired.

When the film actually does initiate a discussion around the gender-reassignment surgery, it is especially ham-fisted. In one scene, Frank goes to Dr. Lin (Terry Chen) to get his unwelcome operation reversed. If Dr. Lin’s remarks are meant to pay lip service to trans experience, they feel tone-deaf. Moreover, Dr. Jane testifies that her surgery on Frank was an “experiment” to test if gender is tied to identity. Acknowledging that her extreme procedure failed to “alter Frank’s essence” — he still believes he is a man despite having a woman’s body — Dr. Jane’s hubris is offensive.

But so much of “The Assignment” is offensive. Rodriguez and Weaver both try to enhance the lousy material, but these fine actors deserve better than this lousy B-movie. Rodriguez may take a risk by playing Frank as both a man and woman, but she is not convincing as a man and creates very little empathy for her character. The feisty actor does better fighting and shooting her way through the film; the clunky dialogue strands her.

In contrast, Weaver delivers her lines with considerable aplomb, but she is mostly constrained by her straightjacket. When Dr. Jane is seen in flashback, curiously, she wears men’s suits and ties, an obvious nod to gender identity that reflects the film’s lack of subtlety or understanding.

“The Assignment” is a film about nasty double-crosses. Everyone, from the cast to the viewers, should feel betrayed by this nasty film.

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