Among the many films (preĖ and postĖPulp Fiction) that have hit men as heroes, Robert Duvallís Assassination Tango stands out, first because Duvall is interested not in the trappings or the mechanics of the thriller genre but mainly in character, and second because his conception of character is so fluid and unconventional. The writer/director/star (who last combined these three functions in the impressive The Apostle) plays Brooklyn hit man John J. When John is sent to Buenos Aires to kill a former member of the military junta that ruled Argentina in the late í70s, Assassination Tango takes a surprising turn: while waiting for the chance to make his hit, he falls in love with the world of the tango and befriends a ravishing tango instructor, Manuela (Luciana Pedraza).
The film is in part a detailed character study, and itís beautifully played by Duvall. John has an old manís weird, casual hipness, along with solidity and a certain rigidity: heís aware that thereís a limit beyond which his body may not do what he wants, but up to that limit he keeps himself taut. This hit man is a thorny bastard, too old to take anyoneís shit, real or imaginary (in one scene, he goes off on an off-duty cop just for remarking that he looks tired, an observation he hears as an insult). When things donít go his way, heís apt to lose control, but in the most limited and precise manner (like repeatedly kicking a pay phone). Such outbursts of nonlethal violence, and his lack of self-awareness at these moments, remind us that violence is his profession. But heís not violent because heís a hit man, and neither is he a hit man because heís violent. Heís never managed to resolve the contradictions between the various things he is, and he probably never will.
The filmís acceptance of the unresolvable is its great strength. A muted and implicit study of the end of a life, Assassination Tango portrays Johnís existence not as a coherent whole but as an exploded pattern. He doesnít want redemption or forgiveness: he wants to do the job and go home. But before he can go home, something happens to him: the tango. To realize how much better Assassination Tango is than the film a hack might have made from the same premise, just consider what Duvall doesnít do with the tango: use it as a symbol of redemption. A more routine movie would have set up an explicit opposition between dancing and killing, with Manuela inspiring John to go straight, putting him in conflict with his bosses, who would then try to kill him, etc. Such a film would have been tidier, more sentimental, and less touching than the one Duvall made, in which the refusal of the logic of redemption is total.
If tango isnít assassinationís counterweight in the film, neither is it a mere diversion. It fascinates the director (a long-time aficionado of the art), and it possesses John, expands him, brings out his charm and his respect for others. Much of Assassination Tango takes place in dark rooms and offices and on unprepossessing streets. That world is an old manís world, a world viewed as if it were already familiar. (Uninterested in the Buenos Aires of tourist guides, John starts assembling a small repertory of known places and routes as soon as he arrives.) The tango scenes, soaked in deep yellows and reds, offer a separate reality and the vision of an elegant and intense life.
Above all, itís through the tango that John meets Manuela. They celebrate their friendship in a lengthy café scene that depends entirely on the light and the nuanced interplay between the actors. (Pedraza, in her film debut, reveals unconventional spontaneity and warmth.) Later, in a fine nightclub sequence, John sits with Manuela and her relatives and friends at a table, and the film cuts away to the dance floor as it fills with couples. The shots of the dancers convey the sense that the person from whose viewpoint theyíre taken is already saying goodbye and is experiencing a contentment heightened, not spoiled, by longing and regret. Duvallís great skill as a director lies in the tact with which he lets these feelings brush the surface of the scene without trying to circumscribe them ó the same tact he demonstrates throughout this rich, enjoyable film.