Assassins (1995) dir. Richard Donner
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, Julianne Moore
Review by Reece Crothers
Part of the continuing series In Praise of Richard Donner
This is one of those perfect storm movies where everything is wrong, from the director to the stars, to the composer, and even the screenwriter doing the rewrite. Everyone involved seems out of their comfort zone and awkwardly struggling to find sure footing. The picture is ridiculously overlong, joyless, unfocused and badly dated. Like the technology it over-relies on to tell it's story, it was already obsolete before it even saw release, a film hopelessly stuck in 1995, the year after Tarantino changed the whole game.
By the mid 90s Quentin's influence had spread like wildfire through all kinds of pictures, but the ones that were really wrecked by the spell 1994's "Pulp Fiction" cast over audiences, were the male action hero pictures. Stallone and his pectoral contemporary Schwarzenegger looked like something out of the 50's once the cool, pop-culture-obsessed, violent, sickos and cowboys of "Reservoir Dogs", "True Romance", and "Pulp Fiction" were let loose on cinema screens. The Joel Silver special, the wise-cracks and big explosions formula, was beginning to feel like a relic of the cold war. Only Bruce Willis would survive and prosper in the ensuing shake-up, largely due to his roles in "Pulp Fiction" and "The Last Boyscout" (directed by "True Romance" helmer Tony Scott) and later Robert Rodriguez' s "Sin City"(Guest directed by Tarantino). Stallone's only blip in an otherwise fading career-trajectory throughout the 90s was his Miramax-produced picture "Copland", and as we all know, Miramax is the "house that Quentin built".
Sly's actual performance isn't bad, really, just uninteresting. And he looks dorky. Not in a fun, ironic, Rambo-wears-a-headband kind of way, but in a Banana Republic, shirts-tucked-into-your-high-waisted-khakis kind of way. What would "Cobra" say about this? Somebody get this man some aviators.
Banderas does what he can with an uninteresting villain, but whenever he is on screen you can't help but wish you were watching Rodriguez's "Desperado" (released the same year) instead, a film that knew how to use his charm and physicality to great effect. Here, he is just swarthy.
Interesting to note is the performance of Julianne Moore, not yet come into herself, still waiting for P.T. Anderson's "Boogie Nights" to ignite her career. She floundered early on in the decade with forgettable parts in pictures like "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle" and "Body Of Evidence" but made a strong impression in "Benny & Joon" as Aiden Quinn's love interest, and with a brief cameo in "The Fugitive". I would bet she signed on to do this before she garnered arthouse acclaim in Altman's "Short Cuts" or Louis Malle's "Vanya On 42nd Street" the previous year. Despite those pictures, it was P.T. Anderson who best knew how to highlight Moore's talents. She has never been as good in any other picture as she was in "Boogie Nights", but she was so good in that film that no one seems to mind. Here, in the Donner picture, we see evidence of the kind of overly serious and miscalculated performances she would give later on in movies like "Next" and "The Forgotten". She is so awkward in her manner, her beauty so fragile, that like everybody else in the picture, she just doesn't fit.
The story, about a good assassin (Stallone) and a bad one (Banderas) going all "Highlander" on each other in a cat and mouse game over their latest "mark" (Moore), occasionally sparks to life in the action sequences and we are reminded that this is indeed from the man with the megaphone on classics like "Superman" and "Lethal Weapon", but those moments are far too few and despite the promise of an early scene that recalls the famous "Look into your heart..." speech from "Miller's Crossing", the picture feels like it should end 40 minutes before it actually does.
The spec script was written by The Wachowski Brothers and picked up by Producer Joel Silver at the same time as The Wachowski's "The Matrix". Silver gave the script to his friend and frequent collaborator, Richard Donner, one of those old-fashioned action-directors who must've hated Pulp Fiction at the time, and Dick, bless his heart, brought in Brian Helgeland to rewrite it. Helgeland has been involved in some good pictures ("Payback"), some great ones ("L.A. Confidential") and some awful ones ("The Order", anyone?). His writing is incredibly stiff and sluggish and occasionally a film is great despite his contribution (Eastwood's direction and the performances of the cast in "Mystic River" cover up a poor adaptation of Dennis Lehane's brilliant novel). The Wachowski's are no Robert Towne but if they wrote this back in their Matrix 1 days, I would bet their script was much more entertaining that what Helgeland did to it. There is a rumour that when producer Joel Silver saw the Wachowski's directorial debut "Bound", he apologized for his part in "Assassins" and let them do "The Matrix" their way. And the game was changed again. For The Matrix whetted the appetites of an audience now craving more and more effects, more and more spectacle. The blockbuster killed the indie by the end of the decade. Just as it had done at the end of the 70's. The 70's belonged to Coppola, the 80s to Spielberg. And so it goes. As we enter a new decade we can only hope the next game changer is ready to throw down, because shit is getting stale again, and while nobody was minding the store Michael Bay has been having too much fun.