Written by Lana & Lilly Wachowski, and Brian Helgeland
Directed by Richard Donner
I’ve previously mentioned Richard Donner when I reviewed Ladyhawke and discussed how he is a perfect example of a journeyman filmmaker. Assassins is yet another example of this. Here we have a story that is rife for stylish exploitation, but instead, we get a very by the numbers shooting. The cinematography is mostly standard except for a few interesting choices here and there. Donner just simply isn’t anywhere close to being an auteur, and that’s not a bad thing. In the case of this film, it really could have used a filmmaker with a more inventive touch.
Robert Rath (Sylvester Stallone) is an assassin for hire who wants to retire from the business. He’s haunted by the memory of killing his mentor, Nicolai, years earlier when the old man also quit the trade. While on a mission to take out a corrupt businessman, Rath crosses paths with Bain (Antonio Banderas), a fellow assassin who wants only to be number one in the world. Rath gets offered a final job with a massive purse attached. He’ll have to take out Electra (Julianne Moore), a talented computer hacker who has information that could take down major world leaders and heads of criminal cartels. When Rath shows up, he decides to protect Electra while Bain makes it his goal to eliminate them both.
The first thing we have to address is the misleading Wachowskis credit for writing. Yes, they did write the screenplay, but when Richard Donner was hired, he brought in his own writer, Helgeland, and did a page one rewrite of the whole thing. This means the characters and underlying skeleton of the story were present, but themes and structures were thrown out the window for something much more conventional. You can see the Wachowskis’ presence in the role technology plays in the story. Rath and Bain take contracts through a chat program on their computer, which sends them the dossiers on targets. Electra has her apartment building wired so she can see what everyone is up to and keep tabs on them. The presentation of technology is clunky and exhibits the disconnect of the director and his screenwriter from what the Wachowskis likely intended.
Because the tone is so muted when outlandish things occur, they stick out. Donner seems to be pulled between making a by the numbers action picture and something with more flavor and intrigue. What doesn’t help are the three main actors not being on the same page. Stallone injects literally zero personality into Rath, and when looking back at Cop Land, he is perfectly capable of playing a character who isn’t himself. Banderas is totally off the wall and the most fun element of the picture, he’s playing a psychopath and hamming it up. Moore feels slightly miscast, especially when you realize she was the lead in Todd Haynes’ moody psychodrama Safe the same year and nailed it. I get that her agent was trying to Moore in the limelight around this time, but this film does her no favors.
The story here is not just ludicrous in a “turn off your brain” way, but actually sloppily constructed. There’s little regard in the action sequences to semi-realism. A standard office table protects a man from a natural gas explosion. Then there are factual errors like the Day of the Dead being celebrated in the middle of San Juan, Puerto Rico. There are just little moments like this that leave the audience questioning how they are supposed to process the story they’re being told. For a movie that had so much money invested in it, the people involved really dropped the ball and left us with an utterly forgettable mid-90s action flick.