There’s a promising idea in Walter Hill’s The Assignment, in which a woman plays a piggish man who’s turned into a woman against his will, seeking revenge against the architects of his new identity, who have, in essence, artificially rendered him transgender. The potential resonance of this self-consciously tasteless conceit resides in the challenge of playing the lead, which requires an actress to ironically communicate increasing alienation as the role evolves to more closely mirror her actual identity. In other words, an actress must play a male comfortably and a female uncomfortably, elaborating on both the truths and illusions of gender identity.
As played by Michelle Rodriguez, it doesn’t matter what gender Frank Kitchen is at any given time, as he’s another of her surly and grunting brutes, which she’s played with little variation for 20 years. Frank’s change from a man to a woman boils down to the loss of a ridiculous fake beard and the gain of buxom breasts that Hill frequently fetishizes. Otherwise, Frank is a standard-issue invincible assassin, who’s sold out by his shadowy employer, Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia), to a mad scientist, Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver).
Leading up to the gender-reassignment surgery, Hill springs a few startling images. Near the start of the film, Frank emerges from a shower as a man, with Rodriguez’s visage atop a fake-looking male chest and, farther down south, an impressive penis. Frank then turns away from the camera, obscuring that penis with his shapely, unmistakably female derriere. For a few minutes, there’s a sense that Hill is trying to be subversive, turning the macho, frequently homophobic crime genre on its ear to revel in the malleability of gender and desire. But the gender-reassignment hook is just a gimmick to inform an otherwise routine genre entry with a patina of outrageousness.
The Assignment resembles Hill’s vastly superior Johnny Handsome, which was also about a hood who was attacked, transformed, and given a shot at a new life. In that film, Hill was interested in the hero’s changing circumstances, and in how social castes insidiously control an illusion of individual freedom. In this one, though, it’s astonishing just how little curiosity Hill and Rodriguez display in exploring the predicament of someone who wakes up to discover that they’re now a member of the opposite sex, which the filmmaker and actress seem to behaviorally liken to recovering from a gunshot wound. Frank describes himself as “looking like a chick,” when, at this point in the film, he is a chick, and this misidentification is telling because Hill and Rodriguez seem to share Frank’s confusion over the precise difference between cosmetic and biological reality. Frank isn’t in drag; corporeally, he’s an altered human being in ways that trump emotion and political fashionableness.
The film’s insensitivity springs from an over-abundance of caution. Hill craves outré brownie points, but he doesn’t want to get too messy, and so we don’t even see what it’s like for Frank to adjust to taking a leak like a woman. Conveniently, Frank’s lover, Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), doesn’t seem to notice any difference in her man, allowing Frank to live at her place while he goes on a killing spree, eventually having sex with him again in a scene that Hill unforgivably elides. The film’s subject—the challenges and costs of breaking sexual boundaries—remains almost entirely off screen.
The Assignment isn’t much of a thriller either, which is disappointing given Hill’s skillfulness as a director. The film has a visual beauty that affirms Hill’s stylishness and craftsmanship, emulating in the tradition of The Warriors the aesthetic of comic books, abounding in pop-art tableaus that paint San Francisco as a red-light-infused noir underworld that’s forever rooted in the 1940s. But the narrative is a patchy, disjointed shambles, alternating between Frank and Kay’s perspectives as they each guide the audience through flashbacks that lead toward their inevitable confrontation. There’s no sense of a present tense in the film, and Frank’s killings are dully arbitrary, as he effortlessly finds the faceless goons he seeks, blasting them before obtaining the next vague, meaningless block of exposition.
Weaver is the film’s ray of light. The script occasionally suggests that Frank is an invention of Kay’s, as the doctor is a sexually frustrated workaholic, an alpha female who might, perhaps, have her own share of gender confusion. (In terms of conventional gender coding, Kay favors masculine suits.) This is another decent idea with which Hill does virtually nothing, but Weaver committedly keys into the potential comedy and pathos of Kay’s situation, earnestly informing her character with a core of confidence and acidic loneliness. Weaver is willing to confront the narrative’s emotional implications, while The Assignment otherwise ineptly pisses on taboos.