***/**** 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.
Contract killer John J., increasingly concerned about his age and an attendant loss of impulse control and anger management, is sent on an assignment to Argentina--a three-day, "in-and-out" political assassination that stretches into three months. To while away the lazy hours, J. (it seems best to refer to the character by this Kafkaesque reduction of his surname) becomes infatuated with statuesque dancer Manuela (Luciana Pedraza), and finds in the tango a philosophy to guide him through the lonely turmoil of death and aging.
Assassination Tango unfolds in segments as if Duvall is trying to fashion the picture in some simulacrum of the ritual of dance and, more importantly, the episodic process of learning to dance. The picture holds a lot of similarities to Jim Jarmusch's brilliant Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai in its patience, its examination of cultures in conflict-then-harmony, and its story of a professional assassin who finds freedom in the bondage that long tradition provides. Both films, too, betray a deceptive balance in their presentation that first impressions would label "slack" but which reflection eventually reveals as design. As Assassination Tango presents its parade of pair-groupings (landlord and mother, uncle and aunt, Manuela and J., and so on), sometimes changing partners, often not, the logic embedded in the picture's constant cutaways to J.'s fantasies of dancing with Manuela grows as resonant as the echoes of baseball games and street scenes that tie the film's Manhattan prologue to Argentina.
More a song of living and dying well than a picture that makes much sense in the traditional definition, Assassination Tango injures itself with Pedraza, Duvall's real-life flame, who is so extraordinarily self-conscious that the languid naturalism of the piece suffers whenever she's on screen. Without her, the picture is a quiet little gem, the sort of film grounded in paranoia and genre issues--yet simultaneously concerned with the peculiarities of iconoclasts and tough guys at the end of their lives and afraid of death--that were a staple of American cinema in the 1970s.
MGM presents Assassination Tango on DVD in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is heavy with edge-enhancement and grain. Films with Duvall at the helm never look all that great and this one's no exception: lighting tends towards the dark, coverage is basic, and, horror of horrors, the source print has a few flaws. That being said, it looks fine in an unspectacular sort of way. The DD 5.1 audio is fabulous for the tango-heavy soundtrack, but, again, Duvall seems not to have looped long sections and the resulting dialogue sound (especially during the J./Manuela café scene) is a shade on the tinny side.
The disc comes with a feature-length yakker from Duvall and Pedraza that's long on small talk and short on substance; revealing that almost everything is improvised is one of those things that can be divulged in a sentence as opposed to the fifty herein. Pedraza, predictably, has nothing really to add and, in fact, leads Duvall into discussion of plot repeatedly in some ignorant belief that people seeing the film for the first time will watch it with the commentary on. A reel of rough-looking deleted scenes in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen tends towards the prosaic, as does its optional commentary track. The key revelation of the feature is that sequences were cut because they were "too long." Same goes for the alternate ending, which is essentially the original ending with an additional ten minutes of nothing-much tacked on. A theatrical trailer, a promotional spot for the soundtrack, a 20-image stills gallery, and trailers for Jeepers Creepers II, Manic, City of Ghosts, Together, and Out of Time (not available off the menu, it plays with the Jeepers Creepers II trailer when the DVD is inserted) round out the disc. Originally published: December 29, 2003.