Assassination Tango

(2003) *** R
114 min. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/UA. Director: Robert Duvall. Cast: Robert Duvall, Kathy Baker, Lucianna Pedraza, Ruben Blades, Frank Gio.

As far as I can tell, Assassination Tango is a wholly unique cinematic experience. There is, perhaps, a hint of a back-handed compliment in this, and Assassination Tango is undeniably a bowlegged meander for audiences accustomed to an athletic jog. But with this damn-the-torpedoes cinematic gamble, writer-producer-director-star Robert Duvall cultivates an endearing, old-school naturalism which matches his story's slow-tango paradigm.

The picture opens in New York City, where hit man John J. Anderson balances his unusual job with a seemingly happy domestic life. He shares this life with two blithe spirits: a woman named Maggie (Kathy Baker) and her ten-year-old daughter Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller). Telling them he does "security work," Anderson instead consults with a mobster named Frankie (Frank Gio), who serves as as a sort-of agent for the aging hitman. Anderson's latest job means a business trip to Buenos Aires, where a fiercely determined cabal (including a delightfully deadpan Ruben Blades) can hardly contain their excitement to wreak revenge, at last, on the corrupt general who killed their loved ones.

And then there's the tango. Anderson likes to dance, but he's positively captivated at the sight of authentic Argentinian tango. When Anderson gets unexpected on-the-job down time, he eagerly fills it with tango and his new acquaintance Manuela (Luciana Pedraza), his dance club muse. The lovely Pedraza--nearly forty years Duvall's junior--is also his real-life love. Her on-screen flirtations with Duvall have an extra charge; they benefit from Duvall's understatement and Pedraza's untrained and therefore unadorned presence.

Pedraza's literal dances with her partner (mostly fantasy reveries) also linger in the mind, but the film belongs to Duvall. Anderson plays like Duvall's unleashed id: touchy and ornery, alternately fun-loving and businesslike. The misheard suggestion that Anderson may be showing wrinkles sends him into a rage, as does the wrinkle in his plans which forces him to miss his beloved Jenny's birthday (he gushes, "She is my soul, my life, my eyes...She's my everything."). But the same man beds a prostitute and insists she call him "Daddy." Anderson's chronic nervous chuckle betrays the mass of contradictions coiled within. In a way, Assassination Tango is just a hard day at the office for this old urban professional. Suffused with the love of tango and life, Anderson betrays that death is just his job, not an adventure.

Accordingly, the assassination plot pretty much takes a sideline to Anderson's idiosyncratic obsession. In this, most of all, Anderson resembles Duvall. With Assassination Tango, Duvall as director becomes an arranger of wonderful instruments: flavorful locations, instinctive performers willing to plunge headlong into improvisation, and Félix Monti's handsome photography (which, no doubt consciously, evokes the heyday of Gordon Willis). Unfortunately, Duvall seems to be deaf in one ear, allowing some tinny dialogue (like this awkward conversation prodder in an extended dance salon round table: "What is the future of tango?") and a few unintentionally funny missteps (one of Anderson's two disguises is even more laughably conspicuous than his nights on the town).

If this curiosity doesn't quite add up to more than the sum of its parts, the parts are pretty darn good. Like the panthers Duvall and Pedraza observe in the film, Assassination Tango is leisurely and intense, beautiful and threatening, capable of a leap as well as a prowl.

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