Assassination Tango Review
It cannot be at all easy when an actor is handed a character with very few redeeming qualities, knowing that the audience is likely to turn away. Robert Duvall is, therefore, to be congratulated for writing and directing Assassination Tango, in which his professional hitman, John J. Anderson, is not permitted a single sympathetic act with which to allow the audience to identify with him.
While it is easy to see why Duvall would have chosen to break from playing the roles of mentors, such as his characters in Gone in Sixty Seconds, Deep Impact, Phenomenon or as the retiring cop in Falling Down, his role in Assassination Tango is of a deeply unpleasant man. John J is a mix of vanity, aggression, a short temper, the need to be in control at all times and a series of annoying tics and mannerisms, made all the more difficult by being an ageing hit man in what you suspect is a young man's business. Indeed, from what we see of John J, he isn't even a particularly good hitman, which hints at an even greater vanity that is evident from the beauty parlours that he owns or the care that he takes over his hair.
Why Assassination Tango is really such a great little film, however, is in the way in which Duvall as a writer and director takes his own character of John J and robs him of all these qualities by stealing away each and every one of them. In the course of the film, John J is asked to travel to Argentina to assassinate a retired general and by the simple means of taking the man out of his New York home, the film examines his reaction to having all that he depends upon being stripped away. His need for control is torn from him when the general has an accident and is admitted to hospital before John J can arrange the hit, requiring that he stay for a matter of weeks and not the two days that he had planned. His aggression is placated in his meeting Manuela (Luciana Pedraza), a dance teacher in Buenos Aires as well as the friendship offered to him by the landlord of the house in which he rents a room. This man plays a small part in the calming of John J's temper when, following the hit, he goes to leave the country and finds his landlord wanting to introduce him to his sick mother. Finally, through the tango that Manuela teaches him, his mannerisms find another means of expression, which is less brooding and more passionate.
Of course, central to this film is the tango, which is a dance of passion, of emotion and, in a remark put forward in Assassination Tango, of life itself. The tango developed out of the portrayal, through dance, of the relationship between a prostitute and her client and thus became an expression of desire, passion and the sexual act. Later, it became combatative, with, for example, two men dancing the tango together, duelling through dance usually for the attentions of a woman. In Manuela teaching John J the tango, admittedly after an opening in which he stumbles over this request, she appears to bring out something that, if not gentleness, then at least a softening of some of John J's more abrasive characteristics. What bonds them, however, is not the dance but Manuela's daughter and who John J left behind in New York.
At the back of John J's mind through all of this is the relationship that he has with his stepdaughter, Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller), whose birthday it was in the week that he travelled to Argentina. John J makes it clear that he had only taken the job on the understanding that he would be able to return to New York within a matter of days but when the hit falls apart and he misses Jenny's birthday, it's as if he compensates through finding relationships in Buenos Aires. This relationship with Jenny is never examined in any depth but is complicated by two events during the film - firstly, that he hires a prostitute who, later in the film, tells the police that he asked her to call him, "Daddy" and, secondly, that he tells Manuela (Luciana Pedraza) that he doesn't really love his wife, only her daughter. The immediate implication is that John J is a paedophile but I don't think it is as straightforward although it is a difficult relationship. I believe, however, that Duvall is showing, albeit only slightly, that John J has some good in him but that the audience is required to look past many flaws, including the assumption that he may be molesting his stepdaughter, to see them. As such, Duvall, as director, writer and star, has delivered a beautifully low-key film that simply allows him to work through a difficult character at a slow pace and, despite the threat of having Assassination Tango sounding dreadful, it's not, much of which has to do with Duvall's willingness to portray John J where many others would have balked at him.
Finally, there is one lie in this review's opening paragraph - Duvall does allow himself one act to give the audience a chance to warm to his character but we never see it. It occurs as John J comes home and he picks up his wife and stepdaughter at the latter's school before taking them home, saying that the last one in the house doesn't get a prize. The audience does not see what happens as the credits roll once John J closes the door behind him but I would suggest that he has not been changed by his experience in Argentina and that returning home to New York has simply given the film an ending. It is not, however, one that is entirely successful but in thinking that Duvall wanted to avoid any great change in John J, it is the one that suits this quiet, carefully-paced film.
Although only a recent release of a 2002 film, the picture quality is only barely functional with there being significant amounts of grain and edge enhancement throughout. There is also a variation in detail with occasional shots showing a great amount of detail whilst others are noticeably softer.
As regards sound, the Dolby Digital soundtrack is fine but in a film where many scenes are of dialogue between Duvall and Pedraza, little stands out other than those set in dance halls, in which the audio track is quite wonderful. As such, I suspect the original audio mix is to blame for any shortcomings rather than the DVD transfer.
The only extra is the Theatrical Trailer (1m52s) that mixes clips from the film with the footage from the end of the film of a couple dancing the tango. Unfortunately, in making the trip from Region 1 to Region 2, Assassination Tango has lost the commentary from Robert Duvall and Luciana Pedraza, the alternate ending and the deleted scenes.
I suspect that, in the end, Assassination Tango was an exercise for Robert Duvall's writing, directing and acting as well as, possibly, a chance for him to indulge a little with something unexpected, such as a love of dance that we never knew he had. But I enjoyed this film a lot more than that description would suggest and it is, frankly, a lot better than this release on a no-frills disc would suggest.
That I did enjoy it so was a surprise and that, in the end, would be my recommendation - assume that you may not enjoy it and you might find that you do, largely because of Duvall's fight to play John J without asking for your sympathies.