At age 72, Robert Duvall has pretty much earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants. Assassination Tango is exactly that: whatever the hell he wants. There aren’t any burning investigations of faith and morality as featured in his irrepressible and memorable drama The Apostle. This one is slightly less ambitious, a movie that appears to have been made to satisfy only its maker, or rather its maker’s love of tango. Duvall, so dedicated to the tango that it borders on obsessive, has made a movie that amounts to little more than what its title promises: assassinations and tangos. The story features Duvall as John J., an aging but still spry hitman operating a string of beauty salons deep in the bowels of Brooklyn and doting heavily on his girlfriend’s young daughter when not out on assignment. Taking a last-minute job against his better judgment, John is sent down to Argentina and upon experiencing numerous delays finds himself mesmerized by the local dance of favor, and by one dancer in particular (Luciana Pedraza, demonstrating more skill as a dancer than as an actress).
This setup is deployed apathetically and there are certainly no points to be awarded for innovation. What is somewhat surprising about Duvall’s film is that it doesn’t seem particularly interested in either half of its equation. The hitman portions of the plot are performed with a perfunctory, let’s-get-this-out-of-the-way attitude (rendering the hotbed of South American political motivation lurking behind John J.‘s mission frustratingly vague), and it forgoes many of the standard action movie elements like shootouts and chases in favor of detailing John’s boredom as he lounges around in his hotel room waiting for something to happen. Simultaneously, much of Duvall’s filmed appreciation of the dance itself is abrupt and half-formed, as if his love for it prevented him from figuring out a way to do his conception justice. The dancing in Assassination Tango falls somewhere in an unsatisfactory gray zone between the breathlessness of Scent of a Woman‘s high point and the nails-on-chalkboard pretension of The Tango Lesson, being neither exciting nor off-putting. It more or less just is.
Assassination Tango combats its own shiftlessness with arrogance; Duvall’s unhurried, almost tranquil mood contaminates every frame, and although the film seems to go nowhere, this idleness makes the film an admirable, almost enjoyable task to sit through. Keeping his co-stars around as occasionally vibrant fringe and giving a performance that is so disaffected from its surroundings as to barely register as a performance (if there were ever a movie that earned the question, “Why didn’t they just make a documentary?” this is it), Duvall orchestrates an impressively slothful atmosphere. Why anyone would be interested in this is surely debatable, but a possible justification for Assassination Tango‘s malaise is that if you have to fill a year’s quota of snobbish, inexplicable vanity projects, who better to do it than an actor as genuine and down-to-earth as Duvall? John J. is no Apostle E.F., Mac Sledge, Col. Kilgore, Tom Hagen, Frank Childers or Jerry Facher, and Assassination Tango is no Apostle, Tender Mercies or A Family Thing. But with Duvall still as vital an anchor as ever, somehow this low-concept senility is still 10 times more interesting than just about any young Hollywood A-game he’s up against. This is the way a real pro finishes up his illustrious career: doing whatever the hell he wants.