'The Assignment': Film Review | TIFF 2016

A deliciously transgressive and smart classic B movie.

Sigourney Weaver stars as a twisted surgeon and Michelle Rodriguez as the man she turns into a woman in Walter Hill's new noir thriller.

A demented pulp fiction about a brilliant surgeon who creates a Frankenstein monster by performing a sex change on the scumbag assassin who killed her brother, The Assignment (previously titled (Re)Assignment) is, by any objective standard, a disreputable slice of bloody sleaze. But there’s also no question that veteran director and co-writer Walter Hill knows exactly what he’s doing here, wading waist-deep into Frank Miller Sin City territory and using genre tropes to explore some provocatively, even outrageously transgressive propositions. For longtime fans of the filmmaker, this Canadian-made low-budget revenge yarn will be embraced as Hill’s most entertaining and, on the terms it sets for itself, accomplished film in some time. It’s an instant cult item.

In a public climate arguably more saturated with discussions of gender than ever in the history of the world, Hill and his co-screenwriter Denis Hamill make subversive creative use of the topic in ways that are both brainy and amusingly provocative. The catalyst for all the mayhem is genius, but now defrocked plastic surgeon Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver in intimidatingly imposing mode), whose revenge upon low-life hitman Frank Kitchen, who took out her brother, is to capture him and apply her expertise by turning him into a woman (Michelle Rodriguez); in a world where transgenderism is now an accepted fact of life, this is one example where it is neither voluntary nor desired.

Intercutting between Rachel’s interrogation by shrink Dr. Ralph Green (Tony Shalhoub) and the hatching of the now-female Frank’s extensive revenge-taking for what’s been done to him/her physically results in a great deal of exposition. But Hill keeps it lively and interesting, on one hand by supplying the brilliant Rachel with lots of blunt and high-toned commentary about how and why she’s done what she did; on an intellectual level, she and Hannibal Lecter would be an even match.

On the other, there’s the spectacle of watching Frank come to grips — and this is meant literally — with “her” own new body. Without any self-consciousness, Rodriguez enacts a thorough physical self-inspection from top to bottom, and her former tough guy character remains infuriated by having been deprived of the equipment he used to enjoy. All the same, she eventually reconnects with a young nurse and part-time good-times girl (Caitlin Gerard) “he” had hooked up with just prior to his unwanted conversion.

A good part of the action involves the extensive revenge Frank exacts upon a local San Francisco gangster, Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia), for an earlier betrayal; plenty of bad guys get blown away here in bloody fashion, and Frank really is remorseless. In this world, much of it set in San Francisco’s Chinatown (actually shot in Vancouver), everyone is guilty — or, to paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, everyone’s got it coming.

Hill, production designer Renee Read and cinematographer James Liston immediately establish and then maintain the look of a seedy urban world defined by dirty browns and blacks, as well as by dimly lit streets, a lonely diner and a seedy old hotel; this is as noir as it gets these days. On numerous occasions, sequences end with visual punctuation courtesy of graphic comics-style illustrations.

The somber tone and low-end production values may not be exactly in tune with young neo-noir enthusiasts, but more seasoned fans of the genre and the filmmaker will recognize and embrace Hill’s use of noir to play with and comment on topical issues in a deliciously subversive way, political correctness be damned. At the same time, however, a witty intellectual loftiness hovers over everything thanks to the erudite remarks ceaselessly pouring from the mouth of Weaver’s doctor, who likes to confound her interrogator with frequent references to Shakespeare.   

Weaver’s terrifically articulated performance neatly establishes the top side of the film’s high/low dynamic. For her part of the equation, Rodriguez, with momentary exceptions, maintains a virulent charge of fury, anger and disgust with what’s been done to him/her, something that quite plausibly drives the vengeful mission. It’s a story of two killers, one of whom operates from the brain, the other from more basic instincts, and together they’re quite a pair for one movie.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)

Production: SBS Films

Cast: Michelle Rodriguez, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony LaPaglia, Caitlin Gerard, Sigourney Weaver

Director: Walter Hill

Screenwriters: Walter Hill, Denis Hamill

Producers: Said Ben Said, Michel Merkt

Director of photography: James Liston

Production designer: Renee Read

Costume designer: Ellen Anderson

Editor: Philip Norden

Music: Giorgio Moroder, Raney Shockne

Casting: Sheila Jaffe, Candice Elzinga

95 minutes