United Artists/American Zoetrope
Written and Directed by Robert Duvall
Produced by Robert Duvall and Rob Carliner
It’s kinda difficult to categorize exactly what ASSASSINATION TANGO is all about. It’s got Old Time Tough gangsters, hit men and political intrigue. It’s also got beautiful women and handsome men in Buenos Aires dancing the tango. A lot. Which I suppose leads to the question is ASSASSINATION TANGO a crime thriller or a dance movie? It’s both and it’s neither. It manages to serve up generous helpings of both while also being a character study as well. How well Robert Duvall as writer, director and star of this movie pulls it off is entirely up to each individual.
John J. Anderson (Robert Duvall) is a career mob hit man past his prime. But he’s still a dangerous son of a bitch when he has to be. But he no longer wants to be. All he’s interested in is settling down with his girlfriend Maggie (Kathy Baker) and her 10 year old daughter Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller) and take care of them. But Anderson is persuaded by his boss, Coney Island mobster Frankie (Frank Gio) to accept a hit in Argentina. The money’s too good to turn down and after Anderson gets Frankie’s word of honor that this will be his last job, Anderson flies down to Buenos Aires.
He hooks up with his local contacts (one of them played by Ruben Blades) and learns that he’s to kill a general who has apparently outlived his usefulness. This is the part of the movie that really made me sit up and pay attention because what we’re talking about here isn’t just whacking Benny Two-Toes in back of The Bada-Bing because he forgot to pay his bar tab. This is clearly a political assassination and I was interested in seeing the ramifications of American gangsters being hired to carry out hits on foreign soil. But we never get that angle of the plot. The general breaks his leg in a riding accident and so the hit is off for three weeks. Don’t ask me why Anderson couldn’t just have gone to the hospital and whacked him there but he doesn’t. Instead, he spends his time wandering around the city until finding a tango club and after watching the performers he’s immediately he’s smitten with the dance. It’s been shown early on in the movie that Anderson loves to dance and he’s seen the tango done before but never like this. And he’s never seen anything like the gorgeous woman he goes to see dance the tango every night for a week, Manuela (Luciana Pedraza, Duvall’s real life wife). Anderson asks Manuela to teach him the ‘real’ tango and the assassination plot gets put on hold as Manuela takes Anderson on a tour of tango clubs where he learns what the tango is all about. But don’t worry, we get back to the assassination part of the story but it doesn’t really take the course we would expect a movie like this to take.
I suppose that’s the main reason I’m recommending ASSASSINATION TANGO: you never get comfortable enough to assume you know where this movie is going. There are a lot of scenes that start out like the type of scenes we’re used to seeing in a crime thriller but the payoff of these scenes may have you cocking your head to the side in surprise. The relationship between Anderson and Manuela is also handled in an unexpected manner. You fully expect that the old guy is going to immediately fall in love with this ravishing young woman and theirs will be an impossible love that cannot be fulfilled. Nah. It don’t go down like that. In fact, they have a conversation in a coffee house that is one of the most adult and natural sounding conversations I’ve ever seen on film. The way Duvall and Luciana Pedraza play the scene is wonderful to watch.
Now there’s going to be a bunch of Robert Duvall fans that will see this movie and wish there was a lot less tangoing and a lot more assassinating but it just isn’t that type of movie. It’s more of a character study about this hit man who is in the twilight of his years but still finds things that keep him young, like his relationship with a 10-year old girl who he considers the daughter he never had, the relationship with this marvelous tango dancer and his learning how to dance the tango the way it was meant to be danced.
This brings me to the dancing itself. Robert Duvall is an enthusiastic tango dancer in real life and many of the dancers in this movie are celebrities in their native Argentina and the way they move is breathtaking. I love dancing and love watching dancing, especially when it’s done this well and with such grace, precision and emotion. It’s easy to see why Anderson falls in love with the tango when it’s danced this way.
The resolution of the assassination plot comes almost as an afterthought. The hit is botched and Anderson finds himself on the run from the police and the people who wanted the general dead in the first place. The way it all ends may leave you saying: “waitamminit…that’s it?” But then again, considering that this movie isn’t really about the hit at all may mollify those of you who want to see a bloodbath of violence at the end of your movies. ASSASSINATION TANGO ends on a quiet, even contemplative note. And when you think about this movie afterwards I have a feeling that like me, you won’t be thinking about the violent scenes. You’ll be thinking about the ones where Anderson takes Jenny for a horse ride or Anderson sitting in a tango club discussing the philosophy of the tango with a group of dancers. Or that great coffee house conversation between Anderson and Manuela. I’d say check it out if you’re a Robert Duvall fan like me. In fact, ASSASSINATION TANGO would make a great double feature with “The Apostle” another movie written and directed by Mr. Duvall.
Rated R for language and violence