The Assignment would be completely indefensible if it tried to be anything other than what it is. It has no delusions that it’s about anything important; there are no deep themes, it doesn’t mine complex human emotion to reveal any universal truths about humanity. It is the consummate B-picture, something you’d see on the tail end of a drive-in double bill in the 1970s. It is, to borrow a phrase from the late Pauline Kael, really great trash.
So everyone’s clear about the movie under discussion, The Assignment was released on the festival circuit under the title (Re)Assignment, in some territories as Tomboy, others as Revenger, and in at least one as Tomboy: A Revenger’s Tale. All of these alternative titles suit the film better than The Assignment: the generic, wholly anonymous title chosen for the US market.
Why are the other titles better? Well, Michelle Rodriguez plays Frank Kitchen, a hitman-for hire who looks suspiciously like Michelle Rodriguez in a fake beard—and, in some shots, a little like Oscar Isaac. One fateful night, someone hires Frank to kill a man named Sebastian. Unfortunately for Frank, Sebastian is the brother of Dr Rachel Kay, a woman with two female first names who always seems to dress in men’s clothing. To castigate Frank, and rid him of his toxic masculinity, she drugs him and subjects him to sex reassignment surgery.
When Frank wakes up, he finds his beard gone, his penis transformed into a vagina, and two supple breasts replacing what was once manly chest hair. The new Frank looks suspiciously like a butch Michelle Rodriguez—and, in some shots, a little like Rami Malek. Frank’s still a man inside, though, and his libido is off the charts; he soon picks up Johnnie—who is, in fact, a woman. ‘I don’t know how to please you,’ Frank says to her, before doing a good job of it anyway.
His sex life intact, he goes about determining how to reverse this mess of a situation. Frank, speaking more or less directly to the camera, tells us that he can already feel himself going soft, what with the newfound lack of testosterone in his body. Not that he’s really in doubt of losing his edge; once a doctor confirms that reversing the surgery is medically impossible, he sets about savagely killing everyone who had even a tangential connection to his body modification.
The Assignment is the purest pulp fiction, the kind of sordid, lurid tale you’d see in dimestore paperbacks back in the age of dimestore paperbacks. For me, ‘sordid’ and ‘lurid’ are not pejoratives, and they aren’t for director Walter Hill either. Fans of Hill’s brand of cinema (he directed The Warriors, 48 Hrs, Last Man Standing) will find much here to revel in. It’s tasteless, vulgar, tawdry—and endlessly entertaining.
A film like this can’t work without dedicated actors—the merest hint of winking at the audience would destroy the tone of reckless abandon. Not every actor would have the balls to play Frank Kitchen, but Michelle Rodriguez dives headfirst, forceful and fearless. The Assignment hinges on her, and you can’t help but wish upon her the title of Action Superstar. She is to this movie what Sigourney Weaver was to the Alien franchise.
Ah, yes. Sigourney Weaver. Fresh off her starring role in Pixar’s Finding Dory, she clearly had an inkling to do something far less classy and much more adult. She plays Dr Jane Kay here, and she steals every single scene she’s in. Her words come out piercing and precise, yet calmly, like some lovechild of David Fincher’s Mark Zuckerburg and Hannibal Lecter. She’s having such a grand time that you can’t help but have one with her.
Every year, respectable films come out hoping to highlight some important social issue. They uplift people, give them hope and resolve. You won’t find any of that nonsense here. The Assignment makes you feel cheap and dirty, and damn satisfied about it, too.