Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1995)

18. Assassins

Joel Silver has an eye for talent. In the eighties, he unleashed Shane Black onto the world. He paired with filmmakers like John McTiernan and John Millius, stars like Arnold and Mel. In the process, he created some of the most beloved, down and dirty action flicks of the eighties. As the nineties rolled on, Silver picked up another talented screenwriter. Or two, I should say. Before the Wachowskis created “The Matrix,” they sold the script for “Assassins.” Nearly directed by Mel Gibson, he passed the screenplay onto Richard Donner. Though the Wachowskis claim their script was entirely rewritten, many of their trademarks are still visible in the final product. Maybe the world wasn’t ready for the future in 1995. “Assassins” underperformed domestically and merely broke even overseas. Did the film deserve to fail?

Robert Rath kills for money. If you need someone to be dead, he’s the best man to call. Yet the years of bullets and death has taken its toll on him. Rath’s haunted by the faces of those he’s killed and is nearly ready to retire. His penultimate job puts him in conflict with Miguel Bain, another killer for hire. Unlike Rath, who is a composed professional, Bain is an unhinged psychopath. Both are hired to kill a female computer hacker. When faced with her, Rath has a change of heart. He teams up with the woman, both on the run from Bain’s mad gun, trying to discover the identity of Rath’s boss who now wants them all dead.

Here in the new millennium, it seems like every unambitious action film is about an assassin or hitman. 1995 was a year less obsessed with professional killers. Yet even back then, “Assassins'” central plot was a little old hat. Yes, this is a movie about a murderer for hire who has a change of heart. Robert Rath is old, worn out, and ready to retire. It seems like his soul is entirely calloused over when he meets Electra. The woman reignites his desire to live. United against a common enemy, they rush through one last adventure. By the conclusion, they have successfully buried their sordid old lives and our ready to build new ones. It wasn’t an unheard of story back then but plays out as incredibly old hat now.

To this well worn concept, the Wachowskis bring a new emphasis on then-current technology. Rath receives his targets over the internet. That is, on his clunky laptop computer via a dial-up connection. He contacts his employer through a simplistic chat interface, that was probably still too hi-tech for 1995. He uses the same computer to play electronic chess, a fairly strangled visual metaphor for Rath planning against his opponent. The same boss desires a floppy disc containing some pertinent information. We often see this disc shoved into a portable drive of some sort. There’s a lot of discussion about code, passwords, and encryptions. It’s nearly hokey from 2016’s perspective. Yet it’s not too difficult to see the Wachowskis leaping from the quasi-high-tech aspects of this story to the cyberpunk setting of “The Matrix.”

There is a downside to the movie’s focus on what’s new and exciting. The first act of “Assassins” borders on the incoherent. We see context lacking flashbacks, that won't mean anything for a little while longer. The movie then leaps ahead into its first action sequence, leaving little time for the audience to get its barrings. Julianne Moore’s character is introduced in an especially convoluted manner. What exactly her character is doing in the plot at first isn’t entirely clear. There’s some Dutch businessmen and some Interpol agents. Even if you pay close attention to the chat room communications between Rath and his boss, it’s possible to get lost during “Assassins” first act.

The part of Robert Rath was offered to a number of established action stars. Sean Connery, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, uh, Michael Douglas all passed on the role. When Sylvester Stallone starred in “Assassins,” it was during his nineties low period, when the star was trying out different characters and failing to find many hits. As Robert Rath, Stallone is at his most mumbly. During a terse conversation in a taxi cab, you can barely understand anything he says. In the first half, when Rath is strictly a graveled old killer, Stallone’s performance seems bored, irritated, and one note. Eventually, he comes out of his shell some, showing a quiet humor. Still, it’s not one of Sly’s more memorable performances.

Luckily, Antonio Banderas picks up the slack. Post-“Desperado,” Banderas already had some action movie cred of his own. In “Assassins,” he goes gleefully over the top. Miguel Bain is completely unhinged. While Stallone drives a cab, he launches into a frenzied speech, describing the pleasure he takes in his profession. He punctuates the conversation by shooting the glass, mostly for the hell of it. Banderas makes pithy comments to fruit, grins, sweats, cackles, and swears. He acts up a storm, Antonio really enjoying a chance to play a nutty bad guy. Considering how muted Sly can be, Banderas’ mad villain often keeps “Assassins” entertaining. It was a performance so deranged that it even spawned an internet meme.

The third central character is Julianne Moore’s Electra. Despite Brian Helgeland’s total rewrite, I can’t help but think Moore’s character features the most Wachowski thumbprints. Aside from being a computer hacker, a hobby she shares with Neo, Electra has a number of quirks. She deeply loves her pet cat, carrying the animal everywhere she goes. She’s wired her apartment complex with cameras, spying on her neighbors. This isn’t for any malicious reason. Instead, Electra watches her neighbors’ lives like it’s a reality show. Moore is able to define her character beyond these eccentric attributes. She brings a pep and energy to the part, enlivening “Assassins’” during its more routine scenes.

Honestly, the best part of “Assassins” has nothing to do with sniper rifles or explosions. Instead, the relationship between Sylvester Stallone’s Rath and Julianne Moore’s Electra proves unusually compelling. The film seems to play this as a romantic relationship. The two share a kiss and, at the end, walk off hand in hand. However, it works better for me as an unexpected friendship. Sly plays with the pet cat, who happily climbs into his lap. She tries to shoot him but he successfully disarms the tension. After making a close getaway, the two share a laugh. Before long, Rath is criticizing Electra's taste in music. The actors don’t share much in the way of romantic chemistry. Yet they do seem to be having fun together.

Don’t think “Assassins” lacks action though. The earliest action beat is a shoot-out in a cemetery, which features Stallone hiding a hand gun in a sling on his arm. After picking up Banderas in his cab, “Assassins” hits its first really cool action beat. Bain dangles out the window while Rath drives the car into the side of the bus, trying to throw the villain out. Aside from some slightly shaky direction, it’s a neat moment. Inevitably, the two assassins meet again as enemies. While inside Electra's apartment, a shoot-out ensues. Mirrors are cleverly utilized during this scene and there’s some neat diving and firing. The shoot-out concludes with a big explosion, Banderas tossed out the window while hiding behind a table. Even a relatively simple sequence of Sly bailing out of a monorail, walking across and climbing down the platform, features some neat, action-heavy imagery.

Surprisingly, the most suspenseful action scene features comparatively little gunfire. During the last act, Stallone enters a bank. He knows Banderas is waiting in the bell tower across the street, a sniper rifle aimed at the door. He knows this because he pulled the same trick decades before. Instead of giving the bad guy what he wants, he waits him out. Stallone sits inside the air conditioned bank, happily biding his time, Moore talking to him through a hidden microphone. Antonio, meanwhile, swelters in the heat outside, pissing in a bottle, and frantically aiming his gun every time someone walks through the door. This sequence is a lot funnier and more suspenseful then the eventual final confrontation between Rath and Bain. Even that features a cool gag, of Banderas falling through several platforms through the dilapidated tower.

As a Richard Donner movie, “Assassins” isn’t that distinct visually from the rest of the director’s nineties output. His by-now trademark of slow motion photography is utilized a few times, such as when Banderas is launched out the window. Another unusual aspect of “Assassins” is the number of not-so-subtle political stickers Donner slaps in the background. While Sly and Banderas shoot at each other, anti-NRA logos are visible on a bus. While Moore tells jokes to the waiting hero, a waitress is seen wearing a “Pro-Choice” t-shirt. Is there any deeper purpose to these choices? Or did Donner just think it was funny to fill a gunfire heavy action flick with anti-firearm and other politically progressive iconography?

“Assassins” opened at number two at the box office, coming and going from theaters without much attention. I think this has less to do with the movie’s quality and more to do with the public’s general indifference to Sylvester Stallone at the time. While hardly a cult favorite, some action fans have suggested that “Assassins” deserves a second look. Which is true. The script has some bumps and Stallone doesn’t seem very interested. Yet when focused on the villain or the love interest, “Assassins” does alright for itself. The Wachowskis would go on to bigger and better things but “Assassins” is worth a watch. [Grade: B-]

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