“Extreme Prejudice” director Walter Hill’s most audacious crime thriller “The Assignment” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) might eventually emerge as a cult item after the controversial LGBT criticism about it dies down. This exploitative Canadian independent film release concerns a disgruntled female plastic surgeon who turns a professional, pistol-packing assassin into a female without either his knowledge or consent. “You’ve been a very bad man,” Dr. Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver of “Alien”) condemns homicidal Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez of “The Fast and The Furious”), in an audio recording left behind for our protagonist to listen to after his surgery. “This is your opportunity for redemption.” Basically, Dr. Jane radically changed Frank because the latter had iced her worthless, cocaine-snorting, playboy brother, Sebastian (Adrian Hough of “Underworld: Evolution”), who was drowning in debt to the Miami mob. Dr. Jane had given her brother enough money to liquidate his gambling debts, but he recklessly blew every cent. After her brother’s demise, she spent a small fortune tracking down the elusive Kitchen. Improbably, Jane believed the sex change would make Kitchen into a better woman than a man! After our angry protagonist recovered sufficiently from this shocking ordeal, he sets out to exact a terrible toll on those dastards who had a hand in the appalling sex change operation that turned his life upside-down. Along the way, Kitchen realizes that a long-time, criminal accomplice, Honest John Hartunian (Anthony LaPaglia of “Empire Records”), whom he had trusted, sold him out to Jane. When everything becomes clear to him, Kitchen realizes an attractive nurse, Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard of “Magic Mike”), with whom he had a one-night tumble, was also a part of the set-up.
While the hopelessly frustrated Kitchen contends with his own quandary, the megalomaniacal surgeon, Dr. Jane (Sigourney Weaver of “Alien”), who quotes Shakespeare and considers herself an artist, has been locked up at the Mendocino Psychiatric Facility in Northern California. Psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub of “Men in Black”) must evaluate Jane, lashed up in a straitjacket for her own good, to determine if she is competent to stand trial for a massacre at her clandestine surgical facility. After receiving an anonymous tip, the San Francisco Police had taken Jane into custody. They found the good doctor unconscious on her own operating table surrounded by four bullet-riddled men. Jane’s male surgical nurse and sometime lover Albert Becker (Ken Kirzinger of “Freddy vs. Jason”) lies dead with a pistol in his hand. Ballistics matched the slugs from Becker’s gun that he had used to kill not only the three men, but also to wound Jane in the shoulder. Meanwhile, Kitchen sets out to find Dr. Jane after gunning down several other criminal contacts that he suspects may have conspired with Jane. Kitchen’s luck runs out initially when she confronts Jane. Jane’s henchmen take our transgendered heroine captive, but they fail to frisk her. Ultimately, this proves to be a fatal mistake. Meantime, Dr. Galen refuses to believe Dr. Jane’s alibi that Kitchen shot her three bodyguards, Albert, and wounded her. A major point of contention between them is the existence of Frank Kitchen. Galen doesn’t believe the man exists, despite Dr. Jane’s assertions to the contrary. Instead, he is convinced Jane “invented Frank Kitchen to protect the memory of Albert Becker.”
Predictably, “The Assignment” provides Hill with an opportunity to orchestrate several indiscriminate, B-movie fire-fights that easily rack up a double-digit body count. Apart from its bizarre premise, this gritty exercise in murder and mayhem resembles one of Walter Hill’s brutal, old-fashioned, shoot’em ups. Hill has helmed classics like “48 HRS,” “Hard Times,” “Last Man Standing,” “Bullet to the Head,” “The Driver” and “Red Heat.” Unfortunately, despite gunfire galore and the glee with which our merciless protagonist devastates the opposition, Michelle Rodriguez is not entirely convincing as a guy. The biggest liability is the bogus beard that looks like it has been attached to her face with glue. Meanwhile, Hill achieves more success with computer-generated-imagery. Rodriguez cavorts about in private during an early scene as a nude dude displaying a hairy chest and abundant male genitalia. Not surprisingly, Rodriguez makes the most of this outlandish role, and she finds herself trapped in some confrontations that are quite entertaining in a pulp fiction way. Sigourney Weaver has a field day as the cold-as-a-scalpel surgeon who castrated Frank. Deep down, Weaver’s Dr. Jane is thoroughly despicable; she would have been in good company with Hitler’s demented surgeons who exploited Jewish prisoners in the Nazi death camps. Categorically, Weaver steals the show with her nuanced performance and detailed character. All the other characters blend into the background with British Columbia locales that have been dressed to resemble San Francisco. “The Assignment” evokes memories of an earlier Hill epic “Johnny Handsome.” In that movie, a deformed gangster went under the knife, and the surgical procedure changed him into a nice guy. Inevitably, his evil past came back to haunt him. For the record, “Turk 182” scenarist Denis Hamill dreamed up “The Assignment” back in 1978, and Hill rewrote it many times before finally making it. Ironically, during the first few minutes of the film, we hear Kitchen confess that he had killed a lot of people during his time, and his comeuppance (the sex-change operation) was preferable to death. Admittedly, Hill and Hamill have a tough time making this sex change gimmick work. Nothing about Kitchen’s discovery about his castration is played strictly for laughs, and Hill and Hamill keep “The Assignment” from degenerating into lowest-common-denominator camp. Whether you’re either transgendered or a traditional enthusiast of hard-boiled thrillers, “The Assignment” (talk about a generic title) will take you by surprise, if it doesn’t ultimately alienate you. Obviously, this is just the kind of movie that few people would want to see, and perhaps least of all want others to know that they had seen. For fans of 75-year old writer & director Walter Hill, “The Assignment” qualifies as a departure from the norm that delivers.