America’s greatest living action filmmaker returns in top form in The Assignment, the deliriously entertaining new film from director Walter Hill. The premise, from a screenplay co-written by Hill and Denis Hamill, is pure lurid pulp: male assassin Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) runs afoul of a brilliant but deranged surgeon (Sigourney Weaver) who has him abducted and knocked unconscious. When Frank comes to, he discovers that he’s been surgically altered and now has the body of a woman – a revelation that only briefly slows down his obsessive quest for revenge.
It’s a provocative conceit that might be offensive in other hands, and indeed Hill has already been hit with criticism that the movie’s premise is transphobic. Yet the director isn’t just being self-serving or disingenuous when he says that the film is its own defense, for The Assignment’s narrative – its actual narrative, not the one imagined by people who haven’t actually seen the film – splinters off in a number of progressive directions, both sociologically and aesthetically. The only way in which The Assignment looks backward is in its sublime sense of action moviemaking craft, which has more in common with the classically composed perfection of Kurosawa and Peckinpah than the frantically cut hand-held style of most recent thrillers. Like Hill’s best work (The Warriors, Streets of Fire, Johnny Handsome), the film strikes a unique and effective balance between serious moral inquiry and the giddy pop pleasures of comic books, crime fiction, and disreputable genre flicks, and it has a propulsive structure that strips everything down to what’s essential, fulfilling Hill’s ideal of elegant simplicity. I spoke with Hill about the movie, which is currently available on multiple VOD platforms and will receive a limited theatrical release on April 7, on the eve of an American Cinematheque tribute to his work. If you’re in Los Angeles, you can see Hill in person at that tribute along with screenings of The Assignment and several Hill masterpieces, including a 70mm presentation of Geronimo: An American Legend.
Head over to Filmmaker Magazine to see the full interview with Hill.