Although co-produced by Joel Silver, Assassins is very much a small, 3-character film where allegiances sway from one side to another at key points, further stressing a vicious rivalry between two top assassins – a top-rated killer for hire named Robert Rath (Sylvester Stallone), and a snotty, greasy, twitchy upstart named Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas).
Miguel’s determination to become No. 1 is like a crack addiction – he needs to kill more people faster, better – but he’s repeatedly surprised that idol Rath continuously outmaneuvers and outshoots him, using an old-style firearm which inspires Miguel to call Rath ‘an antique’ to his face.
Yet Miguel moves like a bloodhound, sniffing his way down corridors or city streets to find ‘the mark’ (target) before Rath, so he can collect the increasingly large bounty. When Rath gets fed up with the game, he takes a chance and lets his target, software whiz Electra (Julianne Moore), live, turning himself into the new mark.
Woven into the script is Rath’s seething guilt in having to kill a colleague and friend to become No. 1 himself 15 years earlier, and the general fatigue of hunting and killing for what’s presumably a 20 year career as a hired gun.
Stallone is perfectly cast as a stoic but lamenting assassin on his way out, staying cool under the craziest of circumstances, whereas Banderas (fresh from Desperado) goes for the behavioral opposite, flinching and muttering like an impatient teenager, constantly challenging Rath in action and words until the two must have their inevitable confrontation (which director Richard Donner stages in a large crumbling hotel).
Moore gives the stock character of Elektra some intelligence, guts, and wily wits: she's an industrial thief, and gets all giddy about selling a disc of coded information to a Dutch bidder (played by Jungle Warriors’ Kai Wulff) for $40,000 – a paltry sum compared to the $2 million bounty on her head. Dragging her cat Pearl around town is a rich indulgence by the writers, but it gives Electra moments of verbal self-reflection, seeing how her character is basically a quiet, private mouse who likes to watch her neighbours’ lives through spy cameras she’s wired throughout her apartment building instead of knowing them on a personal level.
Although the Wachowskis would write and direct the hugely profitable Matrix franchise for Silver, Assassins was their first produced script. Assassins stems from a simple concept, but it's filled with the kind of character nuances typical of their genre-bending work, such as the lesbian crime noir Bound (1996). In the end, the pair weren’t happy with the rewriting done by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), but in spite of their publicized effort to have their names removed from the film, their names remained in the credits, since Helgeland largely rewrote the dialogue instead of conducting a major overhaul.
Structurally, the film is sound, but it does have long stretches of quiet character moments, and Donner seemed content to let them play out, using them as buffer points between classically-rendered montages of scoping, stalking, running, chasing, and assorted mayhem. It’s one of Donner’s best films, and he’s arguably one of the few who could make rear projection scenes work, exploiting Vilmos Zsigmond's (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Black Dahlia) fluid camerawork.
Donner reportedly junked much of Michael Kamen’s score, keeping just two tracks, but hiring Mark Mancina and Media Ventures minions to score the film in record time, and their moody synth score works, giving the film a tense undercurrent, save for the Day of the Dead sequence, where it’s clear the scene had been temp tracked with Eric Serra’s music from La Femme Nikita (1990), Luc Besson’s own film about a female assassin headed for a fast burnout. Mancina emulates a specific cue, but gives it a slight spin to ensure it still fits within the new score’s framework.
Although Assassins runs long, it’s a notable little experiment by Donner and Silver, taking a traditional story of rival killers, and injecting the kind of nuances both generally removed from their own films – notably the Lethal Weapon franchise. The film didn’t do well when originally released, but it’s a minor classic, and features three charismatic and talent stars having fun with the script’s rich little gestures.
A related French film, Mathieu Kassovitz’ Assassin(s) [M] (1997), may have missed the chance at a wide North American release because of the U.S. film’s box office performance, but the two are widely different in tone, and Donner’s film is grounded to a far more plausible and coherent script.
This title is part of a 4-film Stallone Blu-ray wave, including Assassins (1995), Cobra [M] (1986), Demolition Man [M] (1993), and The Specialist [M] (1994).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan