Assassination Tango

Assassination Tango

USA, 2002. Rated R. 114 minutes.

Cast: Robert Duvall, Luciana Pedraza, Rubén Blades, Kathy Baker, Julio Oscar Mechoso, James Keane, Frank Gio, Katherine Micheaux Miller, Frank Cassavetes, Michael Corrente, Raúl Outeda, Géraldine Rojas
Writer: Robert Duvall
Music: Luis Enríquez Bacalov and various artists
Cinematographer: Felix Monti
Producers: Rob Carliner, Robert Duvall
Director: Robert Duvall


Grade: C Review by Carlo Cavagna

R obert Duvall loves the tango. Robert Duvall loves Argentina. Robert Duvall loves longtime girlfriend Luciana Pedraza, with whom he performed the tango at the White House in 1999. Robert Duvall loves movies about the mob--or he's made a lot of them, anyway. Robert Duvall loves complex characters full of internal contradictions, if The Apostle is any indication. Put all of these things together, and you get Assassination Tango, a stew of ideas that struggles to find meaning in its lengthy character study. There's many flavors, but not much beef. What the heck, throw in another dream dance sequence!

The story is this: Duvall's grizzled assassin John J. doesn't have much in life beyond girlfriend Maggie (Kathy Baker) and Maggie's young daughter Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller), whom John adores. His ugly world of bottom feeders is the mob of Goodfellas, not of The Godfather, and he finds refuge from it with Maggie and Jenny and a passion for the tango. After he's sent on a job to Argentina that is delayed by unforeseen complications, John discovers a type of tango he's never seen before, danced with sexual, passionate precision. He fixates on professional tango dancer Manuela (Pedraza), who is inexplicably indulgent of his efforts to insinuate himself into her life. They never become explicitly romantic, but romance is hinted. Regarding their extreme age difference, Manuela shrugs imperceptibly and says, "This is Argentina." I guess we're supposed to accept this because Pedraza and Duvall are together in real life.

Despite his improbable relationship with Manuela, John's scenes with the women are the best part of the movie. Duvall shares an easy rapport with Baker, who plays a loose, relaxed character for a change, and a quiet chemistry with Pedraza. It's the indistinct crime story that fails to engage. John has none of the sophistication and grace that the movies like to associate with professional assassins. Robert DuvallUnlike a cunning veteran killer as Chow Yun-Fat or Jean Reno might portray, John ruthlessly goes for the target, perhaps having arranged for a concurrent distraction, and exits the scene as rapidly as possible. Why does the local boss consider him to be "the best"? Presumably because John gets the job done, nothing more complicated than that.

In Argentina, John is supposed to kill a general guilty of many of the politically motivated "disappearances" of the 1970s. Or so he is told by his contacts, the family members of one of the disappeared--or something, it's not really clear--who include Miguel (Rubén Blades). There's another guy through whom John was hired, or something, and he has a guy inside the federal police that will help John exit the country afterward, or something, and then some of these guys start following John around, providing some justification for John's paranoia. Or something. Why these people would bother bringing John all the way to Argentina (he is a nobody to them) only to doublecross him is beyond comprehension, but it's not really the point of the film, which is just as anxious as John to return to the dance parlor at every opportunity to watch Manuela. Pedraza is not a lifelong dancer, having been introduced to the tango by Duvall himself, but sure carries herself like one.

The link between the tango and killing is similarly unclear. Certainly the beauty of the tango, at times fiery and other times coldly severe, presents a sharp contrast to John's messy murders, underscoring the contradictions of John's character. He is a killer, yet he is passionate about life. He is fiercely loyal to his adopted family back home in New York, and has never been unfaithful to them--at least if you don't count the occasional prostitute who calls him "papito" (daddy) or his flirtations with Manuela. These tensions would be more intriguing if John seemed more like a plausible person and less like an excuse for Duvall to indulge in ACTING! As a result, the character study fails to engage.

Assassination Tango is a frustratingly vague film that won't make much sense anywhere other than inside Duvall's head. It was executive producer Francis Ford Coppola who suggested to his friend that he combine his love of tango with his love of filmmaking. Unfortunately, the story doesn't seem to be thought out much beyond that. The metaphor, if one is intended, doesn't work. Assassination proves to be like the tango much in the same way a Subaru automobile is like punk rock, or reality television is like reality. Assassination Tango will find an audience among fans of dance or of Robert Duvall, or those who confuse abstruseness with artistry, but it won't be a wide one.

Review © March 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 United Artists Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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