Sigourney Weaver’s psychopath forces a sex change on Michelle Rodriguez’s hitman – with disastrous consequences, for the hitman and us, writes Sam Adams.
By Sam Adams
Walter Hill’s (Re)Assignment, a revenge thriller about a hitman who undergoes an involuntary sex change at the hands of a mad doctor, was dogged by controversy before it was even made, but many a great movie has been made from a premise that seemed ill-advised or worse. (Re)Assignment is not one of those movies. The only thing that keeps it from being as damaging as organisations like Glaad feared is that its plot its so fantastic and nonsensical that it never comes anywhere near the real world. It helps that it’s so bad almost no one will see it.
(Re)Assignment, which Hill co-wrote with Denis Hamill, is framed through the institutionalised musings of Sigourney Weaver’s Dr Rachel Jane, a back-alley megalomaniac who performs cut-rate gender reassignment surgery on the “unfortunates” who cannot afford a more reputable, less unlicensed surgeon. Her true passion, though, is the more speculative work she performs on unsuspecting subjects, the kind she can pay henchmen to snatch off the street and who won’t be missed later. When hitman Frank Kitchen kills her beloved brother, the good doctor sees an opportunity to combine her vocation with her desire for revenge: She kidnaps Frank, knocks him unconscious, and when he awakes, he’s been, at least physically, transformed into a woman, one who bears a strong resemblance to Michelle Rodriguez.
The film’s core premise is that it’s possible to change a person’s sex without altering their gender
That Rodriguez makes little attempt to differentiate between the two Franks is not necessarily a fatal flaw. One of (Re)Assignment’s core premises is that it’s possible to change a person’s sex without altering their gender. Even without a penis between his legs, Frank is, as the doctor regretfully concludes, “still a macho man”. But it’s hard to feel the loss of Frank’s masculinity when his male self looks like a teenage boy struggling to grow a scraggly beard, the traces of spirit gum glistening beneath his pasted-on moustache. (The less said about the pre-surgical nude scenes where Rodriguez sports a fuzzy, flesh-coloured breastplate, the better.) Whatever the movie means to say about gender and sex – and for as long as Dr Rachel holds forth on the subject, it’s woefully unclear what that’s even meant to be – it’s crippled by Rodriguez’s limited performance, which struggles to evoke even one self inside Frank’s body, let alone more.
Let’s talk about sex
In her talks with Tony Shalhoub’s unctuous psychiatrist, Rachel dwells on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Philosophy of Composition, which she interprets, rather loosely, to mean that “proper art is able to stand on style alone,” without any need for morality or politics. It’s a sociopath’s rationalisation of her ‘art’, but it’s also how some auteurist diehards approach work by older directors who’ve begun to lose touch with the world: sure, Clint Eastwood’s a political troglodyte, but boy, nobody shoots action the way he does. Sadly, even formalists will come up empty on (Re)Assignment, which apart from a few brisk shootouts suggests nothing of the flair and quick wit – on films he directed like The Warriors, Southern Comfort and 48 hrs and the Alien saga, which he wrote – which made Hill one of the ’70s and ’80s top action film-makers.
For the work of a 74-year-old veteran director, the movie feels dispiritingly juvenile
Occasionally, as he did in his ill-advised recut of The Warriors, Hill freezes the frame and cuts to a comic-book panel, as if suggesting the movie is best read as a moralistic horror story out of his horror anthology TV series Tales From the Crypt, which was itself heavily inspired by Poe. There’s a subtle camp to Weaver’s performance, as when she admires one mobster as “such a Darwinian creation”, that hints as much. But to work as a gory fable, the movie would have had to be bolder and more purposefully tasteless. It’s not hard to imagine Paul Verhoeven or John Waters wading in up to their waists, or conversely, Pedro Almodóvar more delicately exploring its erotic resonances. (The latter is especially easy to imagine, since Almodóvar did as much in 2011’s The Skin I Live In.)
Rachel, who favours suits and ties when she’s not stuffed into a straitjacket, claims to have “liberated” Frank from “the macho prison you’ve been living in”, but (Re)Assignment is still stuck in one, depicting a world in which femininity has been all but erased. The men are men and the women are masculine, with the exception of Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), the svelte blonde nurse who somewhat improbably comes to Frank’s aid. For the work of a 74-year-old veteran director, the movie feels dispiritingly juvenile, more like the fantasy of a frightened boy than a film-making great. It’s hard to know whether we should hope Hill makes another film so that (Re)Assignment isn’t his last or that he quits before he tarnishes his legacy further.