Courtesy Saban Films

Walter Hill’s “The Assignment” Is Unapologetically Deranged

This action flick with an unwanted gender-reassignment surgery at its center is lurid and clunky.

I interviewed director Walter Hill during the release of his less applauded effort, the 1988 action-comedy Red Heat. That profitable movie paired Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a Soviet investigator, with Jim Belushi, as a Chicago cop. (Ladies and gentlemen: the 1980s.) Before I sat down with Hill for lunch at a downtown Seattle hotel, the publicist warned me that he would be wearing sunglasses, as he had delicate eyesight. And indeed, Hill spent the entire interview with his shades on; I never did figure out whether he really had light sensitivity or simply preferred staying concealed. Maybe he just liked looking cool.

A keenly developed sense of cool was a hallmark of Hill’s early work, in which he proved himself a genuine stylist with an old-school attitude. Hill’s terse exploration of tattered heroism was showcased in existential urban dramas like The Driver and The Warriors, as well as the splendid Western, The Long Riders, while the juice from his 1982 smash 48 HRS. allowed Hill to produce a string of offbeat projects. Along with his well-turned action flicks, Hill came up with oddities such as the rock-opera flop Streets of Fire (still beloved by some) and the utterly bizarre supernatural-blues picture Crossroads, in which Ralph Macchio wrestled the ghost of Robert Johnson (unbeloved by anybody, as far as I know).

Hill, now 75, has a new film that recalls both his action gems and his baffling experiments; it’s a crackpot movie made by an intelligent man. The Assignment has the outline of a straight shoot-‘em-up, with a professional assassin seeking revenge. The hit man is Frank Kitchen, a walking cliché of the gangster genre: slick, neatly bearded, unerringly lethal. Frank runs afoul of two powerful adversaries, a San Francisco crime kingpin called Honest John Hartunian (Anthony LaPaglia), and a brilliant surgeon named Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver). As Frank’s story unfolds, we keep returning to a sterile interview room in a prison, where Dr. Kay is interrogated by a psychiatrist (Tony Shalhoub).

This straight outline goes awry when Frank becomes the victim of an unwanted gender-reassignment surgery, as payback for a past assassination. Frank wakes up inside a squalid hotel room in a female body; revenge, of course, ensues. (If you’re keeping track of Hill’s weirder ’80s projects, you might be flashing back to Johnny Handsome, in which ugly thug Mickey Rourke also gets a surgical makeover.) Frank is played, male and female, by Michelle Rodriguez, whose signature sneer is put to apt use in both versions of her character. A greater actor might have found complexity within this character, but it suits this film’s B-movie seediness that the androgynous Rodriguez finds one note and hammers it throughout.

From its bad-taste premise to its chintzy production values, the film is deranged. San Francisco looks exactly like Vancouver, which is where it was shot. The dialogue is hard-boiled well past the three-minute mark, and comic-book panels serve as scene transitions, as if to remind us that we’re watching pulp fiction. In place of the elegant action sequences of past Hill films, The Assignment tends to hurry through its gun battles, as though the director were impatient with all of that now—actually, he seems to prefer the prison conversations, where Dr. Kay imperiously shows off her erudition.

At one point, Dr. Kay—we know early on that she performed the reassignment surgery—loftily declares that she has liberated Frank from the “macho prison” he’s been living in. Hill does the same to the action movie. The Assignment pokes fun at its own genre, upending expectations at every turn. Its admittedly messy attack has not gone over well with some early reviewers; The Guardian called it “a strong contender for 2016’s worst movie,” and the film drew disapproval for using a transgender subject as a plot device. It should be obvious, but The Assignment has nothing to do with transgender issues. If anything, it’s closer to those cross-dressing comedies in which male chauvinists learn what life is like from a female perspective. But the movie is far too lurid (and, truth be told, at times too clunky) to pause long enough for serious reflection. It unapologetically is what it is: all trigger, no warning. The Assignment. Rated R. Opening Fri., April 7 at Varsity Theater.

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