Film Length: 114 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16X9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1)
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Audio: English - Dolby Digital 5.1; Spanish & Portuguese – Stereo Surround
Since his debut in the beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Duvall has amassed a body of work that leaves no doubt he is a tremendously gifted entertainer. As an actor, he had turned in phenomenal performances in films as different from each other as Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, and Falling Down. Not content to rest on his laurels, the Oscar©-winning actor has also written and directed three films of his own, the acclaimed The Apostle, Angelo, My Love, and now Assassination Tango.
As Assassination Tango opens, we meet John J. (Robert Duvall), an excitable, aging assassin that has accepted an important “assignment” in Argentina. His boss, Frankie (Frank Gio), has promised the hit will be an easy one, and the substantial pay involved will be more than worth the nominal risk involved. Moreover, the trip to Argentina is expected to be a short one, meaning John will be back in New York to celebrate the birthday of Jenny, his girlfriend’s daughter, which is only a few days off.
Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned, when the military figure he is tasked with dispatching is injured, and doesn’t return to Argentina as scheduled. As a result, John’s brief three-day trip to Argentina becomes an unwanted stay of several weeks. After he learns of the impending delay, and throws a little tantrum, Mr. J. happens upon a small nightclub while wandering the streets, and becomes enchanted by a sultry dancer named Manuela (Luciana Pedraza), who is performing the Tango, his favorite dance.
Indeed, he is so intrigued by Manuela and her brand of Tango, that he attempts to become a part of her world by taking tango lessons from her, and subsequently befriending her mother and sister. As his stay in Argentina grows longer, John begins to find himself torn between two worlds: one the dreary existence of a brutal, calculating killer, and the other a world of vitality, and refined artistic expression through dance.
Though it is a bold endeavor, Assassination Tango ultimately ends up struggling to find itself amongst these divergent themes. On one hand, we see John evaluating the relationships in this his life, and exploring his true passions, while on the other hand, we are offered a bleak (and somewhat uninteresting) portrait of the life of an aging assassin. Sadly, however, neither of these concepts is fully realized, and despite a valiant effort, Duvall seems unable to find the common thread that will bind them together. This might have been an interesting exploration of a cruel person learning to appreciate the really meaningful relationships in his life, or even a discovery of the sensuous nature of the Tango. Instead, it becomes a schizophrenic film undermined by its clumsily executed crime elements, which are filled with clichés, such as the hitman spying on his mark, interacting with sleazy individuals for information, changing his appearance, and fleeing from the authorities once things go awry.
Another real problem I had with this film is that John is simply not a very likable guy. Am I really supposed to care what happens to a man who murders people for money, and cheats on the woman he claims to love, just because he loves her daughter and enjoys dancing? Honestly, even as John charms his way into a friendship with Manuela, and she in turn is develops an appreciation for his love of Tango, he remains a cold-blooded a-hole. As such, I found it exceedingly difficult to feel any sympathy for the character. To be honest, I even found myself hoping that John J. would come to an unfortunate end.
Still, while the story doesn’t quite work for me, Duvall deserves some credit for not only endeavoring to make an interesting film, but also for casting Assassination Tango magnificently. For example, Kathy Baker makes up for a lack of screen time with a superb performance as John’s girlfriend, and Duvall and Gio exhibit great chemistry in their scenes together. Rubén Blades and Julio Oscar Mechoso also make lasting impressions in their brief appearances as John’s Argentinean contacts. Last, but not least, Robert Duvall is as great as he has ever been, although I don’t think that will come as a surprise to anyone. Duvall takes command of every scene he is in, and handles a role that shifts from diabolical killer to suave gentleman with the grace of a true professional. The performance is great, but the way the character is written killed it for me.
The most downright surprising performance in this film though, is that given by the talented and gorgeous newcomer, Luciana Pedraza. Amazingly, despite the substantial age difference between them, Pedraza and Duvall have a rather believable chemistry. Further, Luciana’s performance is energetic, witty, and infused with such joy that she literally steals almost every scene she appears in. Even more impressively, her portrayal of Manuela is so natural and unforced that she seems more like a seasoned veteran than a “rookie” in the world of cinema.
Unfortunately, despite being laden with talented performers, I found myself disinterested in the places the characters were heading towards. I do not begrudge Duvall, who has certainly proven his strengths as an actor, writer and director, because telling a powerful story once, much less every time out, is a difficult thing to do. Quite simply, Assassination Tango fails to measure up to the body of work he has created, largely because it never brings the two elements of the film that battle for attention together. In fact, as fascinating and invigorating as the dance sequences in the film are, the portions that deal with John’s assignment are equally tedious and lifeless. This aspect of the story has already been done to death in countless other films, and Duvall just doesn’t do enough to make it fresh or exciting.
To sum it up, Assassination Tango takes the wind out of its own sails far too often by overshadowing the graceful dance numbers with its thinly-woven elements of criminal intrigue and a less than likable main character. To be sure, Duvall’s third effort as both writer and director is admirable for its attempt to offer something different. Unfortunately, while the film does feature some terrific performances and moments of subtle artistic excellence, the picture as a whole is unfocused, and nowhere near as entertaining as I believe it should have been. If you are interested in dance though, especially the Tango, this may be well worth a rental!
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
MGM has generated an anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.85:1) for Assassination Tango, and the results are generally pretty impressive. Color reproduction, including flesh tones, is quite accurate, and colors are vibrant, although deep reds appear to bleed a little bit. Black level is also very solid, which equates to a high level of detail in shadows and dimly lit environments. Further, as might be expected from a newer production, the print is also very clean, with minimal film grain, and a negligible amount of spots or dirt.
Of course, the transfer is not quite perfect (are any?), as the image appears a little soft on occasion. Fortuitously, this does not have a negative impact on fine detail, which is decidedly above average. I also noticed a touch of edge enhancement in a couple of sequences, although I really had to look for it. I should point out that these two observations were pretty minor, and that neither issue detracts from the viewing experience almost at all. Not quite reference quality, but this is yet another pleasing transfer by the folks at MGM home video!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Much like its video quality, Assassination Tango’s Dolby Digital 5.1 channel audio track is commendable, but not quite spectacular. For starters, dialogue is clear, clean, and easily discernable, and I did not detect any distortion, hissing, or any other audio anomalies that would interfere with the presentation of the characters’ speech. Since the film is largely dialogue-driven, the front speakers see the most action, and I am happy to report that the soundstage has open, “airy” quality, which allows for faithful reproduction of the variety of music used in the film.
As I mentioned, the bulk of the audio information encoded on the Assassination Tango soundtrack is reproduced via the front channels, but the rears do add some welcome ambiance during the nightclub sequences, and also help to flesh out the musical numbers in the film. Frequency response is also good throughout the audible spectrum as well, including the low end. To be more specific, there is not much LFE information present in this film, except briefly in Chapter 14, but your subwoofer should help fill in the lower registers of this interesting soundtrack nicely.
On the whole, I really did not have any major issues with Assassination Tango’s soundtrack. Other than the fact that the rears could have been brought into play a little more, which is really a matter of personal preference, the dialogue, music, and effects present in the film are all brought to life in a realistic fashion, which is what a soundtrack is supposed to do.
Feature Length Commentary:
The feature length commentary for Assassination Tango is tackled by writer/director/star Robert Duvall, and actress Luciana Pedraza. Unfortunately, neither Duvall nor Pedraza offers too much in the way of interesting details about the conception or production of the film. This is the first time I have listened to a commentary track featuring Mr. Duvall, and given his experience, and his stature as an entertainer, I was particularly surprised by the mundane nature of most of his comments. Specifically, both he and Pedraza offer mostly trivial details about the people in the film, or the locations used, and frequently go off on tangents.
Some of the few highlights included:
--- The revelation that well over 90 percent of the film was shot on location in Argentina. This is even true if almost all of the sequences that are set in New York.
--- There are some good discussions about the music used in the film, including the artists’ names, so you can check out some more of their work if you are so inclined (as I am).
--- Duvall kind of cops to the fact that setting the hit his character has been hired for in Argentina is an excuse to explore the Tango.
In all honesty, Duvall and Pedraza are easy enough to listen to, but fans of this film are unlikely to gain much in the way of real insight from listening to this commentary. It is certainly clear that Duvall has more than a passing interest in the Tango, and the culture of Argentina, but aside from learning who performed some of the wonderful music heard in Assassination Tango, this commentary track was quite disappointing.
There are a total of three deleted scenes, each of which can be viewed with/without commentary by Robert Duvall and Luciana Pedraza. Here is a very brief rundown of what they contain:
--- John takes a ride out to the General’s (his mark) polo match.
--- The scene opens with the Argentinian authorities talking about their desire to track down the “Yankee assassin” and have him killed, which is followed by John J. having a nightmare.
--- In this scene, Manuela discusses her attraction to John, and then attends her birthday party.
Like the deleted scenes, the alternate ending can be viewed with (or without) commentary by Robert Duvall and Luciana Pedraza. This ending is not much different than the one that made the final cut, which Duvall also happens to like better. What I mean is that, aside from being structured a little differently, and being a bit longer than the ending that was used, it conveys essentially the same message.
The theatrical trailer, and a soundtrack spot for Assassination Tango are available, as well as trailers for the City of Ghosts DVD, the Together DVD, and Manic. The cover art for six other MGM DVD releases is also available for viewing.
There are approximately 20 color behind-the-scenes photographs included in the photo gallery section.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
Although Assassination Tango features some wonderfully choreographed dance numbers and stellar acting, the story does not live up to the high standards set by Robert Duvall’s previous efforts. It is not a dismally awful film by any means, but its failure to pull together its divergent plot threads, the dull crime elements of the story, and my dislike for the main character make it difficult for me to give this film a recommendation.
As far as presentation is concerned, this disc does feature a pleasing transfer and audio track, as well as a number of extras (although none are tremendously insightful). In my opinion, this film just does not match the overall presentation it has been afforded by MGM. Still, if you like dance, particularly the Tango, you might want to give this one a rental.
December 9th, 2003