You will either get caught up the quirkiness of Robert Duvalls latest film or you will leave the theater wondering what the heck it was that you just saw. Either way, theres no doubt that you will come away with why Duvall has become obsessed with the tango. Truth be told, I suspect that said obsession was the reason he wrote, directed, and co-produced this vehicle for himself to star in.
The plot has Duvall as John J. Anderson, a New York City hitman with a heart of gold, caring for his plucky longterm girlfriend (Kathy Baker) and her cute-as-a-bugs-ear daughter. Hes the kind of guy that teaches the kid to dance at the local ballroom and frets over what to get her for her birthday. Hes also the king of guy that gets sent to Argentina to take out a general because hes just the best in the business. Once in Argentina, John J. chances upon a tango lesson, the real tango, that is and he is smitten. Soon, between clandestine meetings with his assassination co-conspirators, hes catching tango shows and frequenting the local tango parlor in hopes of learning the tango from Manuela, the star of his favorite tango show. In fact, as the film progresses, the assassination plot becomes secondary to both Anderson and to the plot. Were in Buenos Aires to be seduced by the tango as Duvall was years ago, and on that level, Duvall has succeeded admirably.
When Duvall films the tango, his passion for it is palpable. You can feel the wonder he feels at its emotion and its precision. His cameras follow the concentration of the dancers and the sinuous, sensual way in which their limbs intertwine. By writing himself as a neophyte learning the moves from tango mistress Luciana Pedraza, we, like his character, learn the lore of the dance as well as its mechanics, and its real dangers to the dancers, all things that deepen our appreciation of the moves on the screen without, oddly enough, reducing their mystery. Its a far better expository device than the one he uses for the assassination plot, which has him talking to himself as bullets fly.
As for the other level, the hit, its best not to pay too much attention to it, I dont think Duvall did when writing the script. It though it has a respectable arc, the story has a perfunctory feel The downside to this is the short-shrift he has given to the characters who dont tango, first among them Ruben Blades as a contact who may be working both sides of the conspiracy. Hes an interesting actor and his scenes with Duvall have a light touch amidst the nefarious dealings.
Duvalls style of filmmaking is unpretentious, with dialogue that has a spontaneous, improvised quality to it. In fact, it almost feels like a documentary and that is the question I came away with after seeing ASSASINATION TANGO. Its obvious that Duvalls motive in making this film is to celebrate the tango, so why hang a less-than-thrilling thriller plotline on it? Why not just make a documentary featuring dancers of the caliber of Geraldine Rojas, who both dances and waxes lyrically loquacious about her life with the tango? The mysteries of the filmmakers mind, like the mysteries of the tango are unfathomable.