Friday September 26, 1997
It requires a certain audacity to take a global tragedy in which the smoke has barely cleared--a genocidal war in Bosnia, let's just say--and turn it into a generic thriller. And it's particularly grating when what is essentially a brainless action film tries to promote vague sympathies for living, breathing doers of evil, because the filmmaker has decided that none of the world's problems can be reduced to black and white (while insisting, at the same time, that everything can be a movie).
Consequently, it's a refreshing lack of gray that provides much of the appeal of "The Assignment," director Christian Duguay's intriguing, fast-paced and very straightforward spy chase, which pits a look-alike U.S. Navy officer against Illich Ramirez Sanchez--a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, one of the more successful entrepreneurial terrorists of the '70s and '80s.
The Venezuela-born Carlos has been in custody in Paris since 1994, so he's presumably entered the realm of the ineffective and film-able. Played with panache by the often workmanlike Aidan Quinn, Carlos is a malevolent cancer that must be cut out of the world's hide. And Annibal Ramirez (Quinn again), is just the guy who can do it.
Annibal, however, requires a bit of convincing. And training. And appeasement. While vacationing in Israel, he's abducted by Mossad agents, who interrogate him brutally, convinced that he's Carlos--their faces, with the exception of the eyes, are identical. Annibal finally convinces his captors who he is (when he's says, "I am gonna sue you!" they should have known immediately that he was American). But both the Israeli agent Amos (Ben Kingsley) and CIA ghoul Jack Shaw (Donald Sutherland) realize that through Annibal they can finally trap the Jackal.
Kingsley is quite good, but Sutherland's Shaw is one of the movie's better creations. Having allowed Carlos to slip through his fingers just before the bombing of a Paris restaurant, Shaw is on a personal vendetta--and it makes perfect sense, much more so than if he were characterized as some dispassionate government operative. And with Sutherland's demonic glint, Shaw becomes something other than pure human.
For his part, Quinn is convincingly romantic, both as the pursued and as the pursuer. The first part of the film is dominated by Annibal's training--which, given the constraints of a two-hour movie, is rather thorough. Is it totally convincing? No, but it's fun.
The action sequences are well-handled; a car chase through Beirut, for instance, is electric, as are several airport scenes in which Annibal's cover is blown. Although the chase for Carlos, and his basic nature, are never in doubt, Annibal has a bit of a crisis: With his life dependent on his becoming Carlos, he starts to lose his own identity. He's had to learn to think like Carlos, speak like Carlos, even make love like Carlos; during a brief reunion with his wife, Maura (Claudia Ferri) she notices, and things get dicey. Can this marriage be saved? Can the world?
With all of Duguay's artiness--much of it quite effective--"The Assignment" is, in many ways, an old-fashioned film. It's hokum and hooey and insists on a leap of faith that's breathtakingly long and steep. But in the end, like Carlos the Jackal, it delivers.
The Assignment, 1997. R for strong violence, sexuality and language. Triumph Films presents an Allegro Films Production, a Christian Duguay Film. Directed by Christian Duguay. Written by Dan Gordon and Sabi H. Shabtai. Produced by Tom Berry and Franco Battista. Executive producers David Saungers, Joseph Newton Cohen. Music by Normand Corbeil. Production designer Michael Joy. Director of photography David Franco. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Aidan Quinn as Annibal Ramirez/Carlos. Donald Sutherland as Jack Shaw. Ben Kingsley as Amos. Claudia Ferri as Maura Ramirez. Celine Bonnier as Carla.