LOS ANGELES - With trans issues recently having entered mainstream discourse, certainly not every fictive treatment need be as nuanced as Oscar-nominated "Transamerica" or Emmy-winning "Transparent." Still, nobody -- not even viewers willing to settle for good, unclean B-movie fun -- is done any favors by something as crude as "(re)Assignment," which gracelessly mashes together hardboiled crime-melodrama cliches and an unintentionally funny "Oh no! I'm a chick now!!" gender-change narrative hook.
Not a return to peak form for veteran Hollywood helmer Walter Hill, this cheesy Canadian indie contraption was picked up at the Cannes market for a TBA U.S. theatrical release. But it will be pressing its luck in formats beyond streaming and cable, despite the marquee names of Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver, neither of whom are well-served here.
Framing device is Weaver's disgraced plastic surgeon Dr. Rachel Jane being interviewed over several days' course by psychiatrist Dr. Galen (Tony Shalhoub) at a Northern California mental institution. She's in lockdown there after having been found the bullet-wounded sole apparent survivor of an otherwise fatal melee at a clandestine operating theater in San Francisco. She vehemently denies having killed four men there, pinning blame instead on a figure whose existence authorities can find no evidence of.
That person would be Frank Kitchen (Rodriguez), a scruffy ponytailed hitman who once pulled a "job" on Dr. Jane's ne'er-do-well brother (Adrian Hough) when he failed to pay some serious debts. Hence the de-licensed (for "deviant medical experiments") doc's urge for revenge, which took the form of having crime boss Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia) abduct Frank, who woke up some time later in a seedy hotel room with his dude parts gone and lady parts in their place.
He was not pleased. Getting some help from an erstwhile one-night-stand (Caitlin Gerard as Johnnie) who's surprisingly blase about taking the he-turned-she in, our protagonist then sets about finding how and why this happened -- by aiming his gun at the bottom of Honest Tony's thug ladder, and climbing the corpse trail upward.
Called "Tomboy" (a much better title) over the decades that Hill toyed with filming a script idea co-scenarist Dennis Hamill first pitched in the '70s, "(re)Assignment" recalls the director's classic "The Warriors" in its rather superfluous affectation of segueing between some scenes via comic-book graphics. (The story actually has been recently published as a graphic novel in France.) He's responded to anger over the somewhat trashy conceit in the trans community by calling the film strictly a pulp fantasy, one unintended to reflect modern transgender (or any other) reality.
But the larger-than-life stylization that made it possible to swallow, even luxuriate in the cartoonish excesses of such vintage Hill joints as "Warriors," "Streets of Fire" and "The Driver" is absent here. Even allowing for its evident budget limitations, "(re)Assignment" is drab-looking (despite random brief moments of B&W), with rotely handled violent sequences, and British Columbia too obviously standing in for the Bay Area. The synth washes of '70s disco king Giorgio Moroder's themes only underline a sense that this is a trunk project whose expiration date passed some time ago -- if it was ever fresh to begin with.
That flat air allows no sense of ironic distance to leaven some laughably clunky dialogue, which defies two lead thesps who might have made something even of this preposterous concept if they'd been given a more deft, layered script. Instead, Rodriguez just has to faux-tough it out through a one-dimensional macho avenger role that can't help but come across rather silly, while Weaver attempts to cocoon herself in an archness sufficient to protect even from such dismal lines as "You're becoming a tiresome bore!"
The movie's treatment of Dr. Galen as an overeducated snob is so basic (she quotes Shakespeare! wow!) you half expect the Three Stooges to throw pies at her while she's singing Puccini at a charity luncheon. And unfortunately, that's the level of sophistication operating at all levels here. As a result, a premise that theoretically just might have passed as amusingly outre (a gender-forward spin on Hill's own 1989 "Johnny Handsome," perhaps) never graduates past just-plain-dumb.
Oddly, while the general feel is retro in a not-good way, several glimpses of full frontal nudity may cause enough ratings trouble for "(re)Assignment" to look more daring than it actually plays.