Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver are the Cock of the Walk in Gender-Bending Actioner

DIRECTED BY WALTER HILL/2017 (U.S. release)

There are some things, we tell ourselves, that no self respecting man would ever do. Like, for example, wear a bra. Even when living with pronounced male breasts – which are more prevalent than many would care to admit – they’d still very much rather live with back pain, or better yet, gaffer’s tape, than voluntarily wear a girly support garment.

In The Assignment, it’s star Michelle Rodriguez opts for the gaffer’s tape. She spends several scenes cocooning her bare chest, in sheer willful taping pulling ripping opposition to her womanly body. Then, she uses the same tape to conceal a bullet under her high heel. As for the bullet, “You never know when you’ll need one of these.” As for using the heels? One restrictive gender-based rejection at a time, I suppose…

 

Rodriguez and Weaver are dead perfect for this project, as both have spent their careers powerfully demonstrating culturally masculine qualities without sacrificing their staunch womanhood.

Except, Rodriguez’s character is not rejecting anything so much as refusing to adapt. The thing is, as Austin Powers once put it so eloquently, that’s no woman, baby – that’s a man, man! In what may be the most overwrought revenge scheme of all time, he has been captured, and then against his will, was the victim of gender reassignment surgery. As another wise man once said,

Plucked her eyebrows on the way

Shaved her legs and then he was a she

She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.

And things do get as wild, as one might expect.  When, as is the case here, a professional hitman who’s killed a warped plastic surgeon’s brother wakes up as Michelle Rodriguez, not only will there be hell to pay, he’s got the body and demeanor to collect with extreme prejudice.

“Get dressed and run to the grip truck – I’m gonna need more tape.”

Hill has apparently been looking to get this project made for decades. In the meantime, transgender issues, as well as medical technologies surrounding them, have advanced greatly. For people who are want to debating such things, there’s obviously plenty of hashing out to had with The Assignment. Though clearly, realistic and relatable transgender representation was not the filmmaker’s primary mission.

Punchy and intentionally trashy, The Assignment is a stripped down B-movie in nearly every way. Did we expect anything more (or less) from filmmaker Walter Hill?  Having erected a career on a small mountain of shell casings and raw machismo, Hill has been helplessly watching his particular cinematic formation erode for years now. Like his occasional collaborator John Milius, Hill operates exclusively in the realm of the red-blooded male. Unlike Milius, there’s no layer of fascinating intellectualism beneath his work. His filmography is a series of variations on guys with guns shooting and hitting bad guys, whom also have guns.

 

Should we be surprised, then, that even in this latest female-led foray into his guys-with-guns niche, he’s managed to maintain his trademark qualities? Michelle Rodriguez plays Frank Kitchen, an assassin for hire who finds himself the victim of Dr. Rachel Jane’s revenge, a chillingly twisted professional plastic surgeon played by Sigourney Weaver.

Rodriguez and Weaver are dead perfect for this project, as both have spent their careers powerfully demonstrating culturally masculine qualities without sacrificing their staunch womanhood. For this alone, they are ideal for their roles in The Assignment. Factor in that both are remarkable actresses in their own rights, as well as action movie favorites, and one realizes they’re not only ideal for this, their presence is nearly vindicating of the thing.

Weaver, in dire straits and perfect control.

The question then becomes, if being a casting and performance is the film’s primary virtue by a wide margin, does that virtue alone justify its existence? In this case, the answer is affirmative, if only by the laciest of margins. In a world where the blood-blasted adrenalized gun toting action flick is regarded as pass√©, Hill has successfully found something else to shock sensibilities.

The seventy-five year old filmmaker is back in the director’s chair, demonstrating zero loss of bite or softening with age. Which, in Hill’s case, makes some sense. Hill climbed high but fell low. In the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, he was on a hot streak: 48 Hours, The Warriors, The Long Riders. From there came a series of high profile failures: Streets of Fire, Brewster’s Millions, and Wild Bill. Sure, critics were making fun of him, but he was still allowed to make his particular brand of dark and violent masculine power fantasies. Last Man Standing, 1996’s Yojimbo redo with Bruce Willis, finally make short work of that. It was the age of Tarantino and Pulp Fiction, when it made sense that an established filmmakers of gritty vision could regain his creative footing, and rise anew. Nope. Last Man Standing was the last time audiences went in with expectations. The sheer fizzle of that promising film gave way to the sci-fi punchline Supernova, followed by not much.

Frank Kitchen (Rodriguez), pre-surgery.

If ever there was a name director in need of a third act resuscitation, it might be Walter Hill. The Assignment, though, doesn’t put to bed the question of whether there’s ever been “there” there in the first place. I.e., is Hill really any kind of auteur, or has he only ever been a proficient technician of the stripped-down who’s managed to work within a particularly patriarchal comfort zone? Again, The Assignment doesn’t answer that.

This is a film of few words, that doesn’t want to talk about its issues. (How male…!) Yet, it does manage to be an amusing kind of “career brassiere”, managing to gather, contain and even lift a career that’s been flopping around loose on a hairy chest for far too long.

It’s true that by the end, Frank Kitchen does indeed don a frilly bra. It happens when he puts on the high heels with the bullet taped to the bottom. In a film where a revenge-driven character arc is built on male-gaze feminism, this is what passes for progressive. We just need to remind ourselves that the bra is a contraption invented by a man – the very gender devoted to perpetually trying and hoping to remove them. If that’s not some unintended inner tension, I don’t know what is.

In any case, Hill has finally busted out, with violence and nudity to spare, with this cleverly titled comic book yarn.