There is a scene in Walter Hill’s latest neo noir outing, The Assignment, where deranged plastic surgeon, Dr. Rachel Kay (played by a delightfully evil Sigourney Weaver), recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s essay The Philosophy of Composition when explaining her motives for doing what she does. She’s an artist you see, and her creation is Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez, prosthetic penis and all) – a contract killer she kidnapped and forcefully performed gender reassignment surgery on. Her reason for doing this? To avenge the death of her friend at the hand’s of Frank, while also offering the assailant a chance at redemption. To start over, so to speak… as a woman. Of course, Frank doesn’t take too kindly to being modified and sets out on a revenge mission, making her way through the criminal underbelly of New York City as she searches for the deranged doctor.
The Assignment has been in development for nearly 40 years. Originally titled Tomboy, the idea was conceived by Hill’s frequent writing part Denis Hamill in 1978, and the story focused on a plastic surgeon who turns his wife’s rapist and killer into a woman following his release from prison early due to his young age. The decision to change the character from a rapist to a contract killer was made later on as Hill felt audiences were more likely to sympathise with a murderer-for-hire than a sexual predator. In 2016, the story was published as a graphic novel by French imprint, Rue de Sevres, under the title Corps Et Ame (Body and Soul), which was re-released as the (re)Assignment series earlier this year by Titan and Hard Case Crime.
Like Hill’s earlier work Hard Times (1975) and Johnny Handsome (1989), The Assignment is interested in the concept of change. Kitchen is the epitome of masculinity when we’re introduced to him, but as the film proceeds we see him try to adapt to his new existence. Furthermore, it continues the director’s tradition of probing masculinity, especially when confronted with queerness. There’s a scene in The Assignment where Frank gets hit on for the first time in his new female guise and reacts aggressively; the thought of hooking up with a man is repulsive to him, which is reminiscent of Ajax in The Warriors (1979), who feels uncomfortable at the idea of homosexuality. Gay characters are portrayed positively in the director’s oeuvre, but he’s never shied away from the male psyche’s insecurities pertaining to manhood either.
However, in this film, the exploration of the link between gender and identity isn’t some sort of deep psychological analysis; The Assignment is a revenge movie that revels in the pulp sensibilities that inspired its conception. The transgender topic has been highly controversial in recent years, so Hill’s decision make a film like this amid the current climate is bound to ruffle a few feathers – and it has already. The film has been criticised by some pundits for being insensitive to transgender people since the moment it entered production. But The Assignment isn’t mean spirited or disrespectful towards trans people, nor does it aim to satirise political correctness. Hill hasn’t set out to purposely offend, though it is refreshing to see a film in the mainstream conversation in 2017 that’s unconcerned with incurring nitpicky moral outcry. The story is ludicrous and, while told completely straight-faced, is unabashedly preposterous and rooted in comic book sensibilities.
The decision to cast Michelle Rodriguez as the lead was a wise choice; since her feature-film debut in 2000s boxing drama, Girlfight, she’s made a career out of playing hardened tomboy characters – arguably better than any actress on the planet since the turn of the century. Here she epitomizes the hard as nails type that typically populate the crime-ridden world’s Hill’s films are set in. Sigourney Weaver – another actress renowned for her ability to kick ass on screen – is also perfect casting, playing an outlandish, Shakespeare-quoting villain with just the right blend of solemnity and self-awareness. The strength of the performances elevate what is otherwise a standard revenge tale.
There is plenty to commend in The Assignment, but it’s still a far cry from top-tier Walter Hill. Whether he has another masterpiece left in him on par with The Warriors (1979), Southern Comfort (1981), 48 Hrs. (1982), Streets of Fire (1984) and Extreme Prejudice (1987) remains to be seen. However, after all these years, his films still feel like a breath of fresh air; his last couple certainly don’t rank among his career highlights, but a lesser Hill movie is still a treat, and he’s one of the last vestiges of a bygone era of action and crime cinema that’s – sadly – fading away. Some more excitement could have lifted The Assignment up a few notches in quality, but it’s well worth seeing if you’re a fan of the director’s work.
The Assignment is now available on VOD.