Starring Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Caitlin Gerard, Anthony LaPaglia and Tony Shalhoub. Screenplay by Denis Hamill and Walter Hill. Directed by Walter Hill.

There’s a critically fallacious temptation to applaud the idea of veteran filmmakers getting by with minuscule budgets, as if going back to basics automatically revitalizes their craft. Sometimes it just makes the movies look crummy and cheap. Walter Hill’s The Assignment didn’t need to be a blockbuster, but in certain scenes the visual gap between intention and result is so severe you’ll wish someone could’ve just coughed up an extra million bucks or so to pull off the desired effects.

It’s an audacious idea, based on a script Denis Hamill wrote back in the 1970’s about a hard-boiled hitman named Frank Kitchen who gets knocked out one night and wakes up a few days later to discover that a rogue, psycho surgeon has turned him into a lady. Hill and Hamill don’t seem to have updated things much over the ensuing forty years, keeping their story set in the quasi-timeless, pulp-paperback limbo that’s a second home for the director of The Driver and Streets Of Fire. There’s a real EC Comics vibe here, complete with cuts to cartoon panels for scene transitions – just like the ones Hill junked up his Director’s Cut of The Warriors with back in 2005.

Michelle Rodriguez stars as Frank, spending the film’s early chapters wearing a laughably unconvincing beard out of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian and a hairy, prosthetic chest with a fake dong dangling around her knees. She’s much, much more convincing after Frank’s surprise surgery, strutting around like a dude unsure how to operate his knockout new bod. Rodriguez is inspired casting, though it’s hard to think of another contemporary actress who could even be considered for the role. (One of the great jokes of the Fast & Furious movies is that she’s so much manlier than metrosexual leading men Vin Diesel and Paul Walker.)

Frank’s tale is cross-cut with an interview at a nearby mental hospital where an outmatched shrink (Tony Shalhoub) is questioning a straitjacketed Sigourney Weaver in an empty conference room that I’m assuming is so short on furniture because she ate all the scenery. Weaver is a riot here, playing a mad scientist who sought to avenge her degenerate brother’s murder by sentencing his macho-man killer to life as a woman. She’s constantly quoting Shakespeare and Poe, rolling her eyes at Shalhoub’s dim bulb responses to her Nietzschean manifestos. It’s a really fun performance.

Hill and Hamill’s screenplay deftly works parallel flashback tracks to reveal the mad doctor’s long-stewing plan and Frank’s subsequent revenge, converging on a splendid sight gag right before the closing credits roll. The Assignment is a flatter, less soulful film than Hill’s similarly themed Johnny Handsome, which starred Mickey Rourke as a deformed gangster given a second chance through plastic surgery, but it works a couple of the same nature vs. nurture riffs and eventually argues that it took becoming a woman to turn Frank Kitchen into a better man. (So basically the same moral as Tootsie, except with more people getting shot in the head.)

My issues with the film are mainly aesthetic, constantly distracted by the shoddy sets and drab cinematography. The broadly stylized performances clang against the good-enough-for-government-work production values, which is why those funnybook panel transitions are so helpful here. (No surprise that Hill has also penned a graphic novel adaptation currently on sale in comic shops.) The Assignment will never be confused with one of this filmmaker’s finest, but if you can get on the movie’s bonkers, pulpy wavelength it’s kind of a hoot.


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