April 4, 2003

Hitman torn between life of dancing and life of crime

Hundreds of years from now, when scholars look back upon the films of the early third millennium for insights into the structure and workings of a by-then-obscure society, they will conclude that one of its most popular professions was... being a hitman?

Maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part, but I believe that the slew of hitmen that have appeared in movies good, bad and in between, such as Grosse Pointe Blank, The Whole Nine Yards, The Professional, The Mexican, Analyze This, and Pulp Fiction, are not an accurate representation of reality. There are not that many hitmen. We don't, like, personally know any, right? It's just an appropriate and timely metaphor for some crisis in masculinity, or shorthand for emotional complexity, or it's just poignant to kill people and not feel bad about it but still be a good person these days.

Whatever the reasons, you can now add Robert Duvall's new movie Assassination: Tango to the growing list of films about people who kill people for a living. It is not even a particularly good addition at that. The major problem is that one-half of the movie, the part concerning the hitman, is well-acted but clich├ęd, not at all fleshed-out, and generally unnecessary. The other half of the movie, about the tango, could have been a solid movie if it were not wed to the whole killer-for-hire bit.

Robert Duvall plays John J., an aging hitman from Brooklyn who is a recovering alcoholic with a chip on his shoulder, a soft side, and a double life. He lives with a good woman, played by Kathy Baker, and the real love of his life, her 10 year-old daughter. He is not supposed to be a pervert or anything, just completely absorbed by her in a fatherly way, yet their relationship has some decidedly creepy undertones. John gets hired to do an important job down in Argentina and off he goes, only to get into some kind of messy situation with people being dishonest and trying to get him in trouble or something. Honestly, I couldn't tell you the plot details because the movie itself never explains them; apparently it's not important. The point is that he gets stuck in Buenos Aires and in his free time, besides buying a pair of riding boots for his "daughter," he falls in love with the tango.

John's lovely tango teacher, Manuela, is played by newcomer Luciana Pedraza (who also happens to be Duvall's long time real-life girlfriend). She, Duvall, and Buenos Aires successfully put on a nice little show together. Pedraza, like the movie's better aspects, has a very fresh, genuine feel. Duvall was inspired by documentaries and a number of scenes contain the accessibility and reality of that genre. In particular, a scene in a club where Manuela's family discusses the tango, and an exchange between Pedraza and Duvall in a coffee shop, are refreshingly honest and appealing.

One of the nicest things about the film is that John J. and Manuela, who clearly have an attraction of sorts, never take their relationship beyond friendship. It's a relief not to have to watch a much older man make out with a woman who could be his daughter (though considering their real-life couple status, this might be a strange compliment). One complaint about this portion of the film is the dancing itself; certainly Pedraza can tango better than a novice, but she only began to dance about eight years ago. In one scene from a real tango competition it becomes clear what dancers can really do and you begin to understand how captivating the tango can be.

Duvall, as an actor, also does a good job, which should come as no surprise. In one early scene in which he blows up at the suggestion that he is washed out, John becomes fully irrational in rational ways; a human with a recognizable temper and insecurities. The trouble lies with Duvall as a writer/director. There is an unforgivable shot of a panther that flashes between shots of Duvall and Pedraza dancing; does this mean Manuela is a panther? Or that the tango is sexy and sleek like one? Or is this just a fourteen-year-old's idea of symbolic complexity?

The tango portion of the film is by far the closest to Duvall's heart; he cannot muster the same enthusiasm for the other aspects of the story and their quality suffers noticeably as a result. The assassination plot device is supposed to be shorthand for "something interesting," but it's not actually interesting to watch someone with no remorse. And, at this point, it may even be less interesting to watch a killer with a little compartmentalized remorse. The one scene in which Duvall clutches his chest after a dangerous escape and seems to have some laconic realization about his life is way too little too late. He should have stuck to the dancing.