The Assignment

(Christian Duguay, Canada, 1997)


The Assignment offers several sorts of delights rarely encountered on a big screen these days.

Firstly, it is Canadian – and we hardly see any films of this national origin unless they are signed by David Cronenberg or Atom Egoyan.

Secondly, it counts in most respects as a B movie – the sort of film usually only found in video stores, featuring a special class of actor characteristic of the genre: would-be leading men like Aidan Quinn and histrionic hams like Donald Sutherland and Ben Kingsley.

Thirdly, and most wonderfully, The Assignment arrives (whether or not it was planned this way) as an attempt to cash in on the A-movie The Jackal (1997) with Bruce Willis and Richard Gere – but suitably corrupted, soiled and jazzed up to fit the B movie ethos. For once again we have a story erected around that famous real-life villain Carlos the Jackal – this time having to cope with the fact that he has an exact look-alike, Annibal (Quinn), pressed into service by international security agents.

This is not a political film in any sense. Carlos is not driven by ideology, but sheer greed, evil and lust. With his brilliant set of disguises, accents and strategies, he is the ultimate hitman for hire rather than a card-carrying terrorist. And when Annibal begins his intensive, even sadistic program of training in order to impersonate his doppelganger, he faces the same existential, high-wire problem that plagued the undercover cops in Cruising (1980) or Donnie Brasco (1997): he begins morphing with the bad guy.

Video buffs will recognise director Christian Duguay as the auteur of such B-movie gems as Model By Day (1993) and Scanners III: The Takeover (1992). He has a fine sense for florid, trashy melodrama, delivering it deftly and without apology. This rather lurid script gives Duguay much to work with, especially a scene in which an ex-girlfriend of Carlos teaches Annibal the right way to turn any woman into a raving masochist under his complete psychological and sexual control.

The Assignment is not exactly a subtle or sophisticated thriller. In its low-rent way, it aims for every available frisson, sudden reversal and shock-tactic – and mostly succeeds. In particular – and this is something of a Canadian schlock speciality – the constant interchangeability of good and evil reaches dizzy heights. Duguay’s film – with its knowing echoes of everything from Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) to Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) – may be shamelessly sensationalist, but it is also deeply pleasurable.

© Adrian Martin May 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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