For those of you who choked on laughter when Sylvester Stallone stood in the middle of a futuristic street in "Judge Dredd," dressed in a Halloween outfit from Nintendo, and bellowed to the skies, "I yam the law!," some good news. Stallone barely raises his voice in Richard Donner's "Assassins," and darned if his character isn't actually engaging.
That doesn't mean he is more real than Judge Dredd, or any of the others in the actor's gallery of action heroes. But he's definitely more pleasant, more interesting, less intense. In most of Stallone's films, he plays every scene like a thoroughbred racing for the wire, threatening to blow an aorta with every heartbeat.
Here, he plays Robert Rath--the finest free-lance hit man on the CIA vendor list--as if he were Rambo on Prozac. He kills, but without taking his shirt off, or taking any particular moral satisfaction from it. In fact, he would be retiring as the world's preeminent assassin right now if there weren't this new kid on the block, a wild Spaniard named Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas) who keeps showing up at Rath's jobs and beating him to the kill.
"Assassins" is a contemporary, high-tech Western, with these two gunslingers--one with a conscience, one without--heading for the inevitable showdown. The plot, which brings the two men and another CIA operative (Julianne Moore) from the Pacific Northwest to the Caribbean, has something to do with a computer disc, espionage and post-Cold War betrayal, but it exists solely as a stage for the collisions between its stars.
The screenplay, by the brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski with a polish by Brian Helgeland ("The Nightmare on Elm Street IV"), doesn't measure up on any score to producer Joel Silver's description--"suspenseful, romantic and intelligent"--and it is far too thin to justify its two hour and 15-minute running time. But Donner's low-key, almost leisurely pace, and some surprisingly effective chemistry between its two male stars make it a better show than most in the action genre.
In a way, the dueling egos of Rath and Bain reflect the relationship between Stallone and Banderas. Stallone has been one of the hottest international action stars for nearly two decades; Banderas, currently in the midst of the biggest PR launch afforded a Spaniard in this country since Julio Iglesias, is the cocky newcomer. And Banderas has a clear grasp of what makes an action star shine.
In both "Desperado" and "Assassins," Banderas is sort of a lovable maniac, an icy killer with fiery passion and a perceptible, Mel Gibson-like awareness of the manure he's spreading. By the end of the improbable trail of bodies leading Bain to Rath, Banderas has become an irresistible adversary.
Comparisons to Gibson may stick. Banderas has the same combination of looks, sex appeal and physical athleticism, plus the knack for spontaneous emotional eruptions that Gibson made his signature in the three Donner-directed "Lethal Weapon" movies. Even as an irredeemable sociopath, there's something heroic about Bain in "Assassins," and this performance--more than the one in "Desperado"--figures to cover all those publicity bills.
But as the old dog trying to protect his territory against the indiscriminate spray of the upstart, Stallone holds his own very well. He seems to have learned that counterplay is the best play when competing with a charming scenery-chewer like Banderas, and the quiet, professional calm he keeps as Rath suits him.
Moore, playing a surveillance whiz recruited as Rath's partner, has a few good moments of reluctant action, but her Electra is an otherwise routine love interest, and Stallone--for all his experience and newfound sensitivity--is asked to stretch too far when the old dog starts feeling sentimental.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence and language. Times guidelines: scenes of random slaughter.
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Sylvester Stallone: Robert Rath
Antonio Banderas: Miguel Bain
Julianne Moore: Electra
A Silver Pictures production, released by Warner Bros. Director Richard Donner. Producers Joel Silver, Bruce Evans, Raynold Gideon, Andrew Lazar, Jim Van Wyck. Screenplay by Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, Brian Helgeland. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Editor Richard Marks. Music Mark Mancina. Production design Tom Sanders. Running time: two hours, 15 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.