The screenplay is written by Brian Helgeland. I recognised the name, so i looked up his filmography. It turns out he has written the screenplay’s of many films, including LA Confidential, Conspiracy Theory and Payback, having also directed the latter. And along with the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix), he has a screenplay credit for a personal favourite of mine. So join me as i look back at Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas, as they play Assassins.
I knew nothing of Assassins myself when it was released in 1995. It was only a couple of years later that i spotted it on video, intrigued by this movie i’d never heard of. It’s not really a big surprise that it achieved little fanfare. Stallone was coming off of flops like The Specialist, and his box office power was failing. Banderas had only just completed his breakthrough role in Desperado, and with Evita a year away his brief period of success had not yet begun.
Stallone plays Robert Rath, a hit man considered the best in the business. As so often happens, he has grown disillusioned with his career. Whilst on a hit, it becomes apparent the gig has been double booked. A young hit man is also on the scene, and they exchange bullets until the police show up. The young killer, who we later find out is Miguel Bane (Banderas) is cuffed and taken away. He escapes, and Rath tracks him down.
Rath discovers Bain is a fan, and now plans to usurp him as the worlds premier cleaner. What follows is a twisting and turning rivalry. Rath wants out, but his handler makes him an offer he can’t refuse – a job worth $2 million. Rath decides to take it, once last job that he can retire from. The mark is Electra (Julianne Moore), an information thief, and a disc she is selling to some Dutch buyers.
Once again Bain is also in on the job. When it comes to it, Rath can’t kill the cat-loving target, and instead they hook up, and together offer the disc to the handler, at a vastly inflated price. Now, Rath is the mark, as Bain is given the chance to prove he is the new number one.
Now, i have to confess i’m cheating a bit here. The story and screenplay were the work of the Wachowskis, and Helgeland was commissioned by super-producer Joel Silver for a page one re-write. Silver had bought the screenplay from Andy and Larry Wachowski at the same time as The Matrix, for the same price of $1 million. I was actually going to look back at Mel Gibson’s Payback, but i felt that Assassins has been so overlooked, i wanted to bring it to the attention of movie-goers who may not know about it.
Assassins has bad reviews all over the net, and i’ve not found many with a good word to say about it. I have a different take on it. The themes of the movie, history repeating itself, and reaping what you sow, aren’t done with a great deal of subtlety, but are still illustrated well here. Rath killed his friend and mentor to become number one, and now faces the same fate. His calm demeanour and moral code, selecting only jobs where the mark is deserving of retirement, is in direct contrast to the arrogant young Bain, who has no problem killing anyone who gets in his way, be they cop, woman, child.
Stallone’s stoic delivery and vacant expression actually serve the part well. Banderas’ intensity, flash and physical acting style convey the arrogance, danger and almost derangement of Bain perfectly. Neither are great actors, but these performances, at either end of the spectrum, make it work. I actually really like Banderas here, and feel he lights up the movie, but i can see why others wouldn’t appreciate the performance. Julianne Moore, blessed with a female role that combines strength and vulnerability in perfect balance, shows even here why she is quietly one of the best actresses in Hollywood.
What i love most about this film are the clever little touches. Both assassins are extremely intelligent and resourceful. Bain’s unique way off getting to a mark, a reclusive millionaire, is brilliant. Confined to a wheelchair as the result of a previous assassination attempt many years ago, he never goes out in public. Bain simply kills his brother, allowing a clear shot at the mark when he attends the funeral. Rath’s method of tracking Bain down, Bain dropping a beeper into a buyers pocket so he can find the meet later, little things that have been well thought out really make the movie stand out.
The action scenes are another reason the movie is so great. Rath and Bain’s first conversation in the back of a taxi turns into a unique car chase as they work together and against each other at the same time. A shoot-out in Moore’s apartment building, the funeral shoot-out, all with silenced weapons popping away. The action scenes are all slightly different from the norm, giving the movie a very fresh feel.
The influence that Hong Kong cinema has had on the Wachowski brothers is evident all the way through this movie, never more so than in the last thirty-odd minutes. The night before the dramatic conclusion, Rath reflects on the things he has done, and the direction his life has turned, whilst a clearly nervous Bain tries to relax and unwind before the dramatic events of the next day unfold, all against the backdrop of the Mexican Day of the Dead parade and celebrations. A tense game of cat and mouse the next day concludes with a dramatic shootout in a dilapidated hotel, replete with flying doves and the obligatory Mexican standoff. It wouldn’t feel at all out of place in a John Woo film, and is the closest a Hollywood movie has come to a Hong Kong action movie. I can’t help but feel that if Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung had been playing the lead roles, Assassin’s would have been held up as a work of genius.
I found myself wishing that the Wachowskis had been allowed to direct the film themselves, using their original screenplay. I think the stigma of Stallone, and to a lesser extent Banderas is to blame for the poor reputation of Assassins. It’s a real shame, particularly for the Wachowski brothers – in their hands it could have been as big a hit as The Matrix.
Assassins is available on DVD now.
Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is released this Friday 23rd October.