Review: ‘Assassination Tango’

In his latest foray into direction, Robert Duvall has come up with a singularly disappointing study of an aging hit man on assignment to Buenos Aires who falls for a young tango dancer. On just about every level the film fails, and the meandering, sub-Cassavetes approach is likely to be a turnoff for all but the most indulgent viewers.

In the latest of his infrequent forays into direction, Robert Duvall has come up with a singularly disappointing study of an aging hit man on assignment to Buenos Aires who falls for a young tango dancer. On just about every level — as a thriller, as a romance and as a character study of a complicated man nearing the end of his professional life — the film fails, and the meandering, sub-Cassavetes approach is likely to be a turnoff for all but the most indulgent viewers. Box office returns will be less than they were for the better-achieved “The Apostle,” the actor-writer-director’s last effort, with ancillary not a great deal more cheerful.

It’s difficult to fathom what Duvall had in mind here. Mostly, he seems to have fallen under the potent spell of the Argentine tango, much as another actor-turned-writer-director, Sally Potter, was in “The Tango Lesson.” A great deal of the film’s extenuated running time is taken up with the camera simply capturing some admittedly breathtaking dance moves, mostly the work of the exquisite Luciana Pedraza. But Duvall fails to make his own character compelling, and the film seems willing to explore the treacherous ground of the “quirky” thriller peopled by eccentric characters — with Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky” coming to mind as a similar exercise in futility. That film, of course, has its champions, and doubtless this one will, too.

Duvall plays John J. Anderson, an aging hit man occasionally employed by bar owner Frankie (Frank Gio). John J., who wears his hair pulled back in a ponytail and is sensitive about his personal appearance, has a reputation for being the best at his job, and the opening sequence shows him at work, fatally shooting a man outside a nightclub before anyone around is quite sure what’s happened.

John J. lives with Maggie (Kathy Baker), who loves him but doesn’t really understand him. He’s extremely close to her daughter, Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller), the child he never had: “She is my soul, my life, my eyes, my everything,” he says. He takes her to Frankie’s bar and teaches her, rather inexpertly, to dance the tango.

His latest assignment — to assassinate a retired general (Elvio Nessier), responsible for many deaths during Argentina’s troubled recent past — takes him to Buenos Aires for what he’s told will be three days, which means he’ll be home in time for Jenny’s birthday. John J.’s local contacts, Miguel (Ruben Blades) and Orlando (Julio Oscar Mechoso) fill in the details, but he insists he’ll do the job his way, “and it’ll be done right.”

However, the victim’s arrival at his house in the city where the killing is to take place is delayed, and, in the meantime, John J. checks out a local dance hall, where he sees Manuela (Luciana Pedraza). He’s instantly captivated by the grace and beauty of her dancing and starts hanging out with her and her friends — and starts taking tango lessons from her. A tentative, and ultimately unconsummated, romance develops.

At this point, the narrative’s elements of suspense are pushed firmly to the rear, behind seemingly endless scenes in which John J. and the exquisite Pedraza indulge in small talk or strut their stuff on the dance floor. Since much of the dialogue is deliberately banal (John J.’s favorite expressions are “That’s nice,” “Interesting” and “I don’t believe this”), there’s not a great deal to keep even the most sympathetic viewer much involved.

Duvall gives a stiff performance as the gunman whose time is nearly over, but his character lacks the nobility and stature that might have made John J. a sympathetic and interesting man. Pedraza dances like a dream and shows a pleasant personality, but her character remains one-dimensional. Most of the other cast members have little to do.

Felix Monti’s location photography is quite atmospheric, and the tango music score ensures the film’s soundtrack is never as dull as its dramatics. Other credits are pro, though editor Stephen Mack should have been far more ruthless with the material.

Assassination Tango

Production

A United Artists release of an American Zoetrope production, in association with Butchers Run Films. Produced by Robert Duvall, Rob Carliner. Co-producers, Steven Brown, Raul Outeda. Executive producers, Francis Ford Coppola, Linda Reisman. Directed, written by Robert Duvall.

Crew

Camera (CFI color), Felix Monti; editor, Stephen Mack; music, Luis Bacalov; music supervisor, Charlie Feldman; production designer, Stefania Cella; costume designer, Beatriz di Benedetto; sound (Dolby digital), Ben Cheah; post-production supervisor, Jennifer Lane; stunt coordinator, Frederico Cueva; assistant director, Fernando Altschul; casting, Ed Johnston, Renee Rousselot. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 10, 2002. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 114 MIN.

With

John J. Anderson - Robert Duvall Miguel - Ruben Blades Maggie - Kathy Baker Manuela - Luciana Pedraza Orlando - Julio Oscar Mechoso Whitey - James Keane Frankie - Frank Gio Jenny - Katherine Micheaux Miller Jo Jo - Frank Cassavetes Cop - Michael Corrente Tony Manas - Raul Outeda Pirucha - Geraldine Rojas General Humberto Rojas - Elvio Nessier
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