One could call Robert Duvall’s latest foray as writer/director/star a labor of love. But only if one were very generous, or very, very, very enamored of the actor who has given us some of the most compelling on-screen characters of the last 30 years—Tom Hagen in The Godfather; Lt. Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now; the Oscar-winning Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies; and the actor’s favorite role, curmudgeonly dreamer Augustus McCrae of Lonesome Dove.
A 40-year career suffused with that kind of quality earns any actor a generous bout of self-indulgence. It doesn’t, however, justify Assassination Tango, a patchily plotted thriller in which Duvall’s off-screen obsessions (Argentina, tango, and girlfriend Luciana Pedraza) dictate on-screen action.
Robert Duvall, Ruben Blades, Kathy Baker, Luciana Pedraza, Katherine Micheaux Miller
US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969 (Limited release)
Duvall plays John J., an aging (and, seemingly because of that, both prickly and arrogant) Brooklyn-based hit man, who picks up, and recovers from, his assignments at a local tango bar. He’s also in the midst of a love affair with Maggie (Kathy Baker), and claims a fragment of family of his own through an almost obsessive overprotection of Maggie’s daughter Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller). Appealingly, the movie admits that love, in middle age or later, grows as much from need as from passion: the possession of a daughter who might become his own forms the crux of Maggie’s charm for John.
During the slow opening sequences, John J. follows Jenny until he’s sure she’s safe at school, buys a paper at the local newsstand, snarls at an old adversary who suggests he might be looking tired, and hooks up with his contact, Frankie (Frank Gio), in an ad hoc boxing ring on the corner of a ramshackle, chipped-asphalt basketball court. John J. and his friends are the neighborhood elders, hard men who have earned the right to watch the world go by and enjoy the wary respect of their small, tightly knit community.
However, once the offer of a well paid, three-day hit in Buenos Aries precipitates the action of the movie, characterization falls apart and nuance hits the dirt and dies. First of all, even the most generous viewer is hit by the absence of rationales, however bizarre or slender, for the film’s plot turns. When John J.‘s hit is delayed because its object, a Galtieri-era general, is hospitalized for two weeks after a riding accident, why doesn’t this savvy hit man simply wipe him out in the hospital? Or why doesn’t he go home, and attend the birthday party for Jenny that he’s so angry about missing, and come back later? No logical reason, of course, except that he would not then be able to haunt tango clubs, grow obsessed with the enigmatic (and sometimes downright wooden) Manuela (Luciana Pedraza), and meditate on sensuality and mortality.
To Duvall’s credit, he does not slide down the sentimental route of “man on deadly mission, man meets woman, man falls in love with woman, man compromises his professionalism and dies”—the kind of elegiac nonsense that, for example, disfigured the closing of Heat. But he does fall for another kind of romanticism; a rosy, uncritical exoticism articulated through dance hall philosophizing on the karma of tango.
But these introspective interludes never escape from the voyeuristic detachment of the central character. They achieve neither the transfiguring joie de vivre seen in fantasy movies like Dirty Dancing, Flashdance and Strictly Ballroom nor the blossoming of unexpected life-sustaining creativity that made Masayuki Suo’s delicate Shall We Dance? so memorable.
Furthermore, the performances offer no pleasure to compensate for the uniform blandness of the film’s emotional core. In particular, the club and cafe scenes in Buenos Aires are in desperate need of energy. In the Argentina scenes the obvious improvisations turn preachy, almost like a caricature of inexperienced actors work-shopping the technique. No unexpected insight or memorable phrase emerges. No sudden revelation or naked emotion jolts the complacency of the characters.
Well, maybe one. In an otherwise banal “getting to know you” exchange between John J. and Manuela, he asks her whether he would have had a chance with her had he been younger. She first replies that maybe he still has a chance. Then, after an almost dangerously long pause, she adds, “Welcome to Argentina.” It’s a clever moment, revealing her control and his vulnerability. But it’s never repeated, perhaps because of the film’s lack of direction.
Even the undoubted charisma of Duvall the actor cannot rescue this movie from its aimlessness. He can still surprise, as when he shoos a bunch of teenagers from the basketball court with such controlled menace that it seems to reach right into the theater, or when he demands that the intermediary who handles his hits kiss the ground on his behalf. But often he resembles Robert de Niro in his paying-the-rent movie incarnations: too fixed a smile, too repetitive a gesture, too hurried a transition from one emotion to the next, a collection of tics masquerading as a performance. It’s not exactly boring, but it becomes boringly predictable.
Still, it’s important to applaud Duvall’s willingness to experiment with both genre and technique, even if in this case the finished result is far more vanity project than cinematic landmark. As the award-winning The Apostle showed, he can brew revelation and aggression into a discomfiting, thought-provoking mélange of a movie. But skip Assassination Tango and be on the look out instead for his next excursion as auteur.