A tale of dancing, deception and deadly passion.
Veteran hit man John J. Anderson (Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies, The Apostle) is getting tired of the life. He wants nothing more than to retire and settle down with Maggie (Kathy Baker, Cold Mountain) and her adorable daughter Jenny (Katherine Michaux Miller). But his boss Frankie (Frank Gio, Analyze That) lures John into taking one more assignment: fly to Buenos Aires, kill a despised general, and be back in three days, just in time for Jenny's birthday.
After arriving in Argentina, John is informed by Miguel (Rubén Blades, Crossover Dreams, Q&A) that the job will take considerably more than three days—three weeks, in fact. Angry and bored, John wanders around and discovers a tango club featuring a mesmerizing new form of the dance. He convinces Manuela (Luciana Pedraza) to give him lessons. As time passes, a series of events develops that will change John's life forever.
Assassination Tango is the third film written and directed by Robert Duvall, one of our finest actors. His previous two films, Angelo My Love (1983) and The Apostle (1997), were deeply personal masterpieces that were actually daring for their respective times. Both films revealed a director of tremendous gifts; someone who knew how to tell a coherent, well-thought-out story crammed with great performances. Duvall's newest film is not as solid as his previous outings, but it is still a great film, brimming with life and passion not often found in many Hollywood films.
Duvall's story seems simple enough: a hit man going for one last job and falling in love. But Duvall is not interested in typical, predictable filmmaking. His film features an assassination and a tango, but it is not a dumb, by-the-numbers actioner. The love John Anderson experiences is not physical or emotional love for another woman, but for the dance itself. And while the assassination forms a crucial part of the story, Duvall doesn't wallow in it, allowing events to take their time and develop naturally. Assassination Tango is more of a tone poem than a straightforward story—and herein lies its weakness. While that approach worked with Duvall's two previous directorial efforts, those films aspired to a much smaller scale. Working here with a wider scope, Duvall's picture feels incomplete toward the end.
Like fellow actor-turned-director Clint Eastwood, Duvall knows how to elicit great performances from his cast. His own work as Anderson is his usual strong performance; he always puts the same energy and will into each role, no matter whether large or small. The casting of Duvall's real-life girlfriend Pedraza will no doubt stir cries of nepotism, but it's a gamble that pays off. She gives a commanding, charismatic performance that shows no signs of a first-timer in front of the camera. She speaks mainly English, with great clarity, but also uses Spanish as a nice touch of authenticity. The always-reliable Kathy Baker and Rubén Blades do their usual good work in supporting parts, and Duvall continues his penchant for casting unknowns in important roles.
MGM presents the film in its original 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen format. The transfer looks good, although some grain and edge enhancement prevent it from soaring, as a 2003 release should. It's still quite pleasing to the eye, however. Bold, rich colors and good cinematography come across well enough to earn a pass, despite the negatives.
Audio is excellent. Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround stereo is the best way to experience the sound. The score is powerful and explosive, as it should be considering that rhythmic dance is an important aspect of the film's plot. Without music, the film would sink. All the dialogue is easy to make out and comprehend, which made me happy. Some audiophile purists will find doubtless something to nit-pick, but when it comes to sound I'm easy to please—and this mix pleased me very much.
Several extras are included here, all of which are welcome. The audio commentary track by Robert Duvall and Luciana Pedraza is well worth checking out at least once. Duvall discusses a wide range of topics related to the film, from the production to his directing style when dealing with actors. Pedraza is talkative and interesting to listen to.
Three deleted scenes, all presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, follow the commentary. It's easy to see why Duvall deleted them from his final cut, since they would have stopped the film dead in its tracks. Duvall and Pedraza offer commentary for these scenes, and listening to their remarks is a must. The scenes themselves still retain the editing codes at the top and bottom of the screen and are of uneven quality.
The film's original ending, with optional commentary from Duvall and Pedraza, should have remained in the final cut. This alternate conclusion clarifies one important detail that is left unresolved in the current version. This sequence is in rough shape, looking dull and with lots of pixelation and ghosting.
A photo gallery would ordinarily be something to overlook, but do make the effort to sort through this one. It's one of the more interesting galleries to surface on a DVD to date.
Is Assassination Tango worth a purchase? Actually, I think so. Duvall's unique directorial style will simply demand repeat viewing, and the $24.95 retail price will not break any wallets. If you're not sold on the idea of a blind buy, then rent it. You will be satisfied with the film and disc.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Writer/Director/Actor Robert Duvall and Actor Luciana Pedraza
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