Call me cynical, but when was the last time you heard - outside of the movies, that is - about an assassin with a taste for the finer things in life? It's become a hip cliché in recent years (due in large part to The Sopranos) to present cold-blooded criminals as quirky, cultured people who struggle with the same daily dilemmas (family obligations, work-related stress) as "normal" people. Yet Duvall, despite a feisty performance as a weathered killer who, left stranded in Argentina when an assignment is delayed, wiles away his days learning the particulars of Argentine tango, can do nothing to make John Anderson seem like anything more than a fictional creation.
Not that he doesn't try. Duvall, who wrote as well as directed the film (with less success than he did in 1997's The Apostle), stands center stage in virtually every scene, and smoothly handles a role that careens wildly between mad lunatic and suave charmer with the elegance of a pro performing a dance he knows by heart. Unfortunately, though, Mr. Duvall's storytelling priorities seem to be out of whack - what could have been a fascinating exploration of the sensuous culture of Argentine tango (a subject the actor/director displays an affection for) winds up instead being a rather clumsy mobster movie with lots of been-there, done-that touches (scouting out locations, dealing with shady employers and cohorts, fleeing from the authorities). When Duvall's preparation for the hit - he's been sent to South America to kill some military bigwig - finally takes a backseat to scenes of the tango itself, the film catches wind of some stylish excitement. Duvall shoots the choreographed numbers (some of which he takes part in) with a reverential grace, never making the mistake of gussying up the performances with rat-a-tat editing a la Rob Marshall's Chicago, and the dance teacher of Anderson's affection (a striking beauty named Manuela, played by newcomer Luciana Pedraza) certainly has skill to burn. But the film, time and again, mistakenly places dancing in the background in favor of banal criminal intrigue.
In the film's only semi-organic scene, Duvall and Pedraza share a cup of coffee in a café overlooking the calm city streets, and their rapport is as refreshingly unforced and nimble as the rest of the film is awkward. There's more than a shade of irony in Duvall's juxtaposition of a tango with his character's careful preparation for the assassination - the beauty of his dance sequences stand in blatant contrast to the film's clunky crime elements. When Duvall's Anderson, expressing how he balances his brutal profession with his more sensitive side, states to his employers, "My job is my job, and that's it," the cliché exposes not only the film's contentment with floundering about in tired and familiar territory, but also a considerable moral vacuum. Watching the final tango routine during the closing credits, it's not surprising to find that the misguided Assassination Tango's most entertaining sequence arrives once the movie theater's lights are coming on.
Watch the hands, bud.
Run time: 114 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 4th September 2003
Box Office USA: $0.9M
Distributed by: MGM Distribution Company
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 48%
Fresh: 42 Rotten: 46
IMDB: 5.8 / 10
Director: Robert Duvall
Screenwriter: Robert Duvall