***/**** Image B Sound B Extras C
starring Robert Duvall, Ruben Blades, Kathy Baker, Luciana Pedraza
written and directed by Robert Duvall
by Walter Chaw In one of a series of largely-improvised exchanges about the mystical hold of the tango on the spirit of Argentines, a crusty veteran confides in enigmatic Yankee hitman John J. (Robert Duvall, also writer-director) that the tango, among absolutes such as love and hate, is life. In Assassination Tango, the titular dance is also the metaphor for the desire to find balance between the brutish and the sublime or, failing that, to provide a strict framework within which the brute can prowl. (A visit to a caged panther in a Buenos Aires zoo becomes the visual manifestation of the idea as well as oblique reference to Kafka's "The Hunger Artist," the hero of which searches, like J., for sustenance.) The tango is the urgent pull of ritual that binds animal sexuality into the meticulous structure of dance, working on the literal level as doppelgänger to John J.'s carefully-controlled, gradually encroaching chaos and on another level as metaphor for a filmmaker seeking equilibrium between personal crisis and professional ambition at the end of his career. It's rationale enough for a picture so often interested in frustrating narrative to the benefit of the richness of its palimpsest; if ever there were a film that lives entirely in its subtext, Assassination Tango (even its title a semantic conundrum) is it.