'Assassination Tango': Two Steps Back

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2003

It takes two to bungle, and the two who appear to have bungled "Assassination Tango" are the director, Robert Duvall, and the screenwriter, Robert Duvall.

The actor Robert Duvall emerges unscathed from this vanity production, as does Luciana Pedraza, who co-stars both in the film and in Duvall's life. Both emerge so vividly from the film, you wish to hell it had been better.

Alas, it refuses to be. It advances by fits and starts, verges off on tangents. It seems much less formally "written" than improvised on the spot, and generally delivers in none of the areas it penetrates, not as a thriller, not as an encomium to the tango, not as a tribute to a passionate relationship.

Duvall casts himself as John J., Brooklyn hit man extraordinaire, who still knows more and is cooler than the younger fellows by half. So when he gets a job that takes him to Buenos Aires, it's no big deal: three days, in and out, an easy hit, and then back to New York and the loving arms of Maggie (Kathy Baker) and her daughter, Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller), whom he loves as his own child.

But in B.A., there's a complication. His target, a general, is hurt in an accident, and rests in the country for a few weeks. John J. must wait for him to return, and during that time he wanders the great South American city, and is lured into the world of the tango.

One supposes an autobiographical subtext: John J., ace hit man, is a version of Robert D., the ace actor, who, at a certain time in his life, finds himself exposed to both a beauty and a beauty of a dance: Can true love for either be far behind? Well, the reality is nobody's business, but in the movie true love arrives sooner rather than later, and soon the three -- the man, the woman, the dance -- are spending all their time together. But then duty beckons: Does the old guy have it in him to bring this one off, particularly as he has begun to suspect the game is rigged against him? What do you think?

Too bad a real writer didn't hone and tighten the script, and keep the suspense elements sharp while the love and dance were on-screen. As it is, one half of the movie cancels the other half out almost entirely. And in the presence of Pedraza, whatever fires Duvall had as a killer are muted. He likes her too much to actually act.

These sequences, as a matter of fact, are probably the most amusing in the film. Lean, long and aristocratic, she holds the camera beautifully. She's not really an actress, but a regal presence. He, meanwhile, is rather lumpy and beat-up-looking, and the ponytail-on-bald-guy thing just makes him balder. But what you read is his enchantment, his charm, his yearning for something pure in his life.

Oh, then there's the plot, a fairly lackadaisical thing with one good riff. He's working for and with a group seeking vengeance for the general's evil during the Troubles; yet he doesn't quite trust them, and while rendezvousing with them fully and ordering special weapons and picking out a long-range shooting spot, he's setting up his own cleverer, quieter gambit. That's why John J. is the best.

The dance sequences are somewhat disappointing. The film never makes us feel the power of the tango; to me, at least, it just looks like the fox trot with some flashy leg moves at the end of every step-together, step-together. It hasn't the allure of a seductive thing and one wonders why Duvall felt it so powerfully.

Anyway, no one is likely to remember "Assassination Tango" very long after it pulls out of town. Duvall is a great actor in the homestretch of a great career; it's hard to hold this trifle against him, and certainly nobody will.

Assassination Tango (114 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row) is rated R for profanity and violence.

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