One Liner Review:
A pretty lousy and stupid movie about contract killers who are after each other.
Assassins is a movie that exists simply to tell the story of two hitmen going after each other. One is the older guy ready to retire. The other is the new, young guy, full of ambition and energy. The young guy wants to kill the old guy just so he can be number one. That’s about as deep as their relationship goes. You don’t need a plot that is complicated for an action movie, just look at John Wick, or most any other revenge thriller. But what you do need is some form of intelligence. Assassins has a couple of decent action scenes, but boy does it miss the mark with characters, dialogue, and storytelling. The problem isn’t that Stallone is playing a tired, brooding, depressed guy, it’s that he does things that don’t seem to make any sense. He protects a target that he’s supposed to kill for no reason at all, and instead of killing his enemy during a cab ride, he decides to make small talk with the man until his enemy recognizes him. And this is supposed to be as good hitman? The best in the business? The movie works with action, but not really with anything else.
Back in 1995, action movies didn’t have to be very smart. Some were fantastic and still hold up today (The Die Hard films,) but most were pretty mediocre. Especially the ones starring guys like Schwartzenegger and Stallone. Arnold was making movies like Eraser, with these crazy ridiculous green lightning shooting laser guns, and Stallone was making movies like the Specialist, where he played a bomb expert working for the real bad guys. That movie wasn’t very good, but it was a hell of a lot better than Assassins. This film, about two hitmen who have it in for each other, couldn’t have painted with more basic strokes if it tried. And the movie was written by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential,) and the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix.) How that makes any sense is too crazy to even put together, except to say that this must have been their warm-up film that they were all cutting their teeth on, with the promise of bigger, better, and certainly much smarter things to come.
The movie hits all the cliches right from the beginning. There’s the older, tired assassin who is ready to hang up his hat and retire. Then there’s the younger, ambitious assassin, new to the game and ready to make his mark. Call it the Seven of hitman movies (one detective ready to retire, the other one ready to take the world by storm and make a name for himself.) Only here, in Assassins, everybody’s motivation is stupid. The young assassin, Miguel Bane, (Antonio Banderas,) wants to kill the older assassin, Robert Rath, (Stallone,) because Rath is the number one. That’s it. He’s the best and Bane wants to be the best and the only way to do that is by killing the guy who is even better. It’s the All About Eve / Showgirls philosophy, and it’s pretty simple and dumb.
Rath’s motivation might actually be even worse. He doesn’t have one. His job is to assassinate Electra, (played by Julianne Moore,) an illegal information thief and dealer, and instead he ends up protecting her. Why? For no reason at all. He kills everyone, only this time he has a change of mind and decides to not complete his job and keep her alive. Is it just because she’s a woman? We never get an answer, other than the simple idea that the movie wants him to be a good guy and Bane to be a bad guy and this is the simplest way to do that.
Long before we meet Electra, however this is the story of Rath and Bane. Rath gets his jobs from an unknown person at the other end of a computer screen, and carries on brief conversations with this person. He also talks out loud to himself before typing things in. In fact, a number of characters do this, which is a really dopey way of letting the audience know what characters are thinking. When Bane smells jasmine and thinks Electra is nearby, he then comments that there’s jasmine everywhere, again telling us exactly what he’s thinking. Even Electra has a cheap way of getting her thoughts across to the audience, by having her speak to her cat, and tell the cat whatever’s on her mind.
But despite these flaws, the movie does get off to a nice start. There’s a scene at a funeral where Ruth has his target and then someone kills the man before he gets the chance. That someone is Bane. He’s disguised as a graveyard worker, and we suddenly find ourselves in a cool shootout behind tombstones. From there, it isn’t long before Rath is picking Bane up in a taxi where he plans to kill Bane as soon as the man steps out. Only one problem. Rath starts making chit chat. Really? First of all, the Rath character is supposed to be this quiet, depressed, subdued guy. Secondly, doesn’t he think that making small talk might get Bane to recognize him? And lastly, Bane doesn’t even want to make small talk and tells Rath that. But the movie needs Bane to recognize him so that we can get a cool in the can shootout scene, which we do. Bane hangs out the side window and tries to shoot back inside the passenger window to hit Rath. At the same time, Rath is slamming the cab against the side of a bus, trying to injure or kill Bane in the process. It’s a cool action scene, but nothing more.
And then we get the story of Electra. Like a paint by the numbers book, first we meet Rath in his job, (letting a former assassin shoot himself, instead of going out like a mark,) then we meet Bane and get two scenes of his conflict with Rath, (the funeral and the taxi cab,) and then we get our latest target, Electra. She’s trying to get paid for selling out secrets, doing an exchange via remote control dump truck in the air vents of hotel rooms. This woman has cameras in every apartment in her building, seeing in and watching people’s lives, like William Baldwin in Sliver. Why? Because it makes her interesting, or so the writers of this movie think. Like she’s got no life of her own, so she has to watch other people and talk to her cat. And the worst character moment for her comes when she stands in an elevator spray painting the fur coat of a woman who is standing right in front of her, and the woman doesn’t notice. Forget that the woman would almost definitely smell the spray paint, you can actually hear it the entire time. And what would Electra do if the woman turned around and noticed? This is ridiculous stuff.
In a movie that is supposed to be about guys in an industry where everyone is a bad guy, this film goes to great pains to make Rath seem like a good guy. The one target we see him assassinate ends up saying “thank you,” and “you’re a good friend,” to him, because Rath let him take his own life. Are we to believe that Rath was going to kill the old man in a wheel chair at the funeral? That’s a laugh. This hitman has got a heart of gold every step of the way. The problem is that it doesn’t give us any explanation for this. There’s no problem with Rath protecting Electra, so long as there’s a reason for it. When Chow Yun Fat switched sides to go against the man who hired him in the Replacement Killers, it was because he wouldn’t take out a target in front of the man’s kid. The same thing with Al Pacino in Scarface, in the car with the man who was trying to explode a car with kids in it. Switching sides is fine, so long as there’s a reason or at least an attempt at an explanation.
But this movie doesn’t want to put any thought into its ideas. It also thinks the audience is a pack of dummies. That’s why every joke has to be explained out. When Rath gets into a little banter about why he doesn’t sleep with his toe attached with a string to the doorknob, because the door opens in, he then feels the need to explain this even further to Electra. Both Rath and Electra find the time to sit down and talk about the last time they touched somebody. There is way too much telling and not enough showing going on here. It gets so bad, in fact, that the movie skips over whole ideas that would let characters or the audience connect the dots on things, and just has the characters automatically figure them out. When Bane is listening in to the room with Electra and hears her say, “Don’t,” he just knows that Rath is in the room with her. Really? She couldn’t have been talking to her cat, or to herself, or anyone else? When Rath says he was here before, referring to an old hotel and rooftop shot he took, Electra is able to figure out exactly who was killed and how it was done. This is the movie wanting the audience to be so surprised by the revelation that we don’t stop to ask how the character figured it out. Because she couldn’t have figured it out.
Speaking of attempts at manipulating the audience, about three quarters of the way in, Rath becomes the new target. His picture gets sent to Bane, and it’s supposed to be this big surprise because that’s the same way all of the pictures of past targets got sent over. So now Rath isn’t just the competition, he’s the target. And this is supposed to be the movies way of upping the ante and raising the stakes. Only Bane was after Rath anyway. The two of them have already been hunting and tying to kill each other. So Rath becoming the target doesn’t actually change anything. Unless maybe now there will be other hitmen coming after Rath. Now that would be cool. The movie doesn’t do it. This film wants to keep things simple. Rath,Bane, and Electra. That’s it.
Assassins is a very poor movie. Made by Richard Donner, the man who directed the first few Superman movies and the Lethal Weapon films, he’s a director from another time. If you look back at those Lethal Weapons films, the humor doesn’t fly. It doesn’t work anymore. The same thing goes for a movie like this. Maybe the concept of dark and brooding hitmen seemed appealing at the time, but when everything they do is ridiculous and the story is stripped down to the bare bones of having one of them be good, one of them be bad, and the two spending the movie trying to kill each other, the lack of effort and creativity really stands out. It’s a shame because some of the action is cool and the set pieces at times get pretty fantastic. The abandoned hotel at the end is perfect. Of course we have to sit through the most boring sequence in the film, with Rath sitting in a bank and Bane sitting at a window sweating the day away, just to get to it, but even still. This is not a good movie. The dialogue and actions of the characters are cringe-worthy, and nobody seems to be trying here. Maybe Antonio Banderas, trying to use his suave Desperado persona to play a bad guy. He needed a better movie to try that out in.