The subject matter in Walter Hill’s THE ASSIGNMENT will make half the audience cringe in a way that the other half, no matter how empathetic, won’t be able to fully understand. And that’s sly. This brutal exercise in gender studies, masquerading as a biting action-noir fable, is rife with irony and with bald truths designed to be exactly as unsettling as they are. Amid the bullets and castration, it reveals a gulf between the sexes that is ultimately unfathomable, unless, like our protagonist, you have lived both ways.
That would be Frankie Kitchen. He starts the film as a hard-boiled, cocksure hitman before being expertly transformed into an equally hard-boiled, cocksure-esque woman bent on revenge against Dr. Jane (Sigourney Weaver), the (literally) mad doctor who performed the procedure for reasons she found not just reasonable, but also charitable. Frankie before and after are both played, with the help of some neat CGI, by Michelle Rodriguez, whose surly growl and ironic insolence have never been used to better advantage. As their target, Weaver is just as surly, and just as ironic, even in the straight-jacket she wears while having her sanity evaluated by Dr. Galen (Tony Shalhoub). There is also a palpable element of contempt for him and the world at large as she quotes Shakespeare and Poe, which, despite the reality of their relative circumstances, places Jane in complete control.
The question of her sanity has nothing to do with Kitchen. In fact, Galen and the State of California that has locked Jane up, are convinced that he is a figment of her imagination dreamed up when she was wounded during a shooting spree (on 11/22, yet) in her illegal surgical suite. There, she had been engaged in medical experiments on people, provided by the shady Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia), with no use to society, and conducted, Jane assures us, for the good of that part of humanity she deemed worthwhile. She also provided underground sex-reassignment surgeries for those who required same, but lacked the necessary funds. Hence her expertise in Frankie’s transformation. Far from criminal, Jane considers herself an artist, above the rules of mere mortals.
As for Frankie, they negotiate a new reality, where their new assets make them a target, and also give them unexpected advantages, the which they learn to use with the same efficiency that they use their firearms. They are, paradoxically, perceived as more vulnerable and yet, taking control of their circumstances, are even more powerful. Yet Rodriguez shows us more than the initial awkwardness of dealing with a new body, she also, and without a shred of cheapening sentiment, shows Frankie growing a soul. First with the one-night stand, Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), who takes Frankie in without a question about the gender switch, and the pit-bull they rescue from another of Frankie’s targets. The offer to “do what I can” when Frankie and Johnnie (get it?) spend their first post-op night together is as moving as the thundering realization on Frankie’s face when they realize that there is not getting back the old, ahem, equipment.
With an arch wink and dash of Petit Guignol, THE ASSIGNMENT dissects society’s norms via its less reputable elements as cleanly and mercilessly as Jane removed Frankie’s manhood. When the doctor declares with perfect calm to the board deciding on her sanity that they have no right to judge her, she is indulging in the megalomaniac’s fantasy of superiority, but she is also the metaphor of women defying the men who are controlling them. She is defined as mad for charting her own course without asking permission. But how she got there, and what we are to make of that are deliberately, deliciously, provocative questions.