Movies


This movie rolled up on Amazon Prime last night. Since I had just watched once of my not-so-guilty pleasures the night before (Streets of Fire) by the director, Walter Hill, and I’ve liked Michelle Rodrigue since her premier in Girlfight (excellent film!) I figured it would be Hill’s signature pulpy tough-guy movie schtick.

Hill is one of those directors that can make a bad movie so cool, it’s good (The Warriors, 48 Hours, Red Heat, Streets of Fire (Come on! SLEDGEHAMMER fight!), Last Man Standing), or take a total dump (Supernova, Another 48 Hours, Brewster’s Millions, or on screenplay duty for the execrable Alien 3.) The Assignment is stuck somewhere between.

The social justice warrior and transgender crowds, every ready to take offense, will immediately go apoplectic over the very premise. A cold blooded hit man (Rodriguez) kills the worthless but beloved brother of psychotic doctor Rachel Kay, who has him picked up by some of her underworld buddies and in a combination of revenge and social experiment about whether gender and identity are tied for physical expression performs a sex change operation.

Frank Kitchen (said sex change recipient) wakes to find himself a herself and proceeds to follow the revenge play tropes through the rest of the movie. High art? Nope. As exploitative as Pedro Alvodómar’s The Skin I Live In? Certainly not, although that is from a respected “important” director. It’s also obviously suffering from a low budget (it’s a Saban production, after all…) and Hill is working with what he’s got. There’s a lot of dark street scenes with neon lighting, shootouts in grimy rooms, and cartoonish thugs working for the “Doctor.” As such, it’s missing that cool style Hill usually brings to films like this.

Other than a few shots to establish Rodriguez’s character as a man (with full frontal prosthetic), then as a woman, and to highlight the discomfort with his new form, there’s little titillation to the movie. This is a straight tough guy revenge film, with Rodriguez doing sterling tough guy (but now as a woman) stuff: talking tough, blasting people with .45s, and generally acting passably well through it. Is Hill making any statements on gender issues or transgender roles? Nope. This is simply the hook for the not-so-good guy to do his…her stuff. Kitchen doesn’t want to be a woman, but too bad! Kay wanted him to suffer, but also to see if he would embrace his “opportunity” to be something different.

 

Weaver is incarcerated throughout the movie, and we swap between Kitchen’s story and hers. It’s an awkward construction, but the scenes between her blood-chilling “Doctor” and her psychiatrist (played by Tony Shaloub) are fun and played with the mirth a story like this require. It’s a lurid pulp novel story as the use of comic art transitions informs us: a bit stupid, but in the end mindlessly(ish) entertaining.

So is it worth it? On my scale of “Don’t even borrow it” to “Go full price and 3D/IMAX”, it’s a firm rent. If you like Hill’s pulp movies, like Last Man Standing or 48 Hours, you will probably enjoy it, even if it’s not good. If Hill had brought his style A-game, like he did to Streets of Fire or Last Man Standing, it would have definitely be a good matinee movie.

If you’re offended by anything gender-related, avoid it.

So, I’ve been reading some of the reviews. The fans of the original movie, and the snobby end of the film reviewing community are blasting it for various reasons. Others seem taken with it. I went this weekend with the wife to see the live action Ghost in the Shell.

I’m a big fan of the 1995 anime film and the subsequent Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. I’m a bigger fan of the series Stand Alone Complex, which hits many of the same beats on the nature of intelligence and humanity, gives the secondary characters more time, but has the time to build the world and political of Masamune Shirow’s future Japan. So I had high hopes, but low expectations — films like Ghost in the Shell rarely translate well for a general Western audience. And that was precisely who the filmmakers were targeting. This was an expensive movie; they need a wider reception than anime fans.

So…how was it?

The good: Johannsen manages to do an excellent job with the muted emotional expression the Major has in the anime. Pillou is superb as Batou (my favorite character of all the iterations…), and Beat Takeshi nails it as Aramaki. The practical effects — the Shirow-esque cars, the street sets, the use of an actual robotic skeleton and muscle model for the shell sequence — are all top notch, although I though the riot of CGI rendered holographic advertising was a touch much. The other good thing, the movie takes the cybernetics of this world right down into the Uncanny Valley. The cybernetics aren’t cool, they’re creepy — from being able to see how Batou’s new eyes are inserted into his eye cavities, to other bits and bobs, to the overly stylized geisha robots, everything is off.

The “meh”: The rest of th team doesn’t get enough time. This isn’t much different from the 1995, where Saito, Pazu, Boma, and Ishikawa only get a few moments, at best. The addition of another female officer for diversity-sake cut into the material that would usually go to Ishikawa. The bad guy is your standard-issue corporate bad guy, and the bad guy who is actually a victim of the Evil Corporation™ is underwhelming. We’ve seen this before. In the movie and show, the government and their machinations are the real villains.

The homages to the excellent action pieces from the 1995 film sometimes work, sometimes don’t. The street chase into the canal, where the Major kicks a guys ass while still camouflaged works here, as well; the geisha scene is riffing — much better — on the first episode of Stand Alone Complex; and the classic Major vs. tank scene is recreated but with a lot less verve. Overall, that balanced out for me as “meh.”

The bad: Togusa, the nearly all-human cop, is the entre for the viewer in almost every version of this universe, the guy you can kind of identify with. He gets nowhere near enough time on screen (but does use a Mateba, fans!) The change of Kusinagi’s background makes her more accessible for Western and general audiences, but loses some of the point of the character. The Major is so good at what she does because, in the other iterations, she’s been a cyborg since a childhood accident…she really is more machine, at times, than human. That was the crux of her identity crisis in the other iterations. The “fake background” subplot just doesn’t work as well.

Overall, the movie is a decent adaptation of a movie that is superior in many ways, but itself suffered from some of the cultural shortcuts in storytelling that Westerns don’t use. It’s less talky than the original, but that means the philosophical elements lack some of the impact. It is stylistically good, with a real tech-porn kind of setting, and aspects of it are truly excellent, but substance-wise it lacks some of the depth of the original (and a lot if you compare it to the mind-bending sequel Innocence.)

Is it worth it? If you’re a fan, yes. You will most likely enjoy it, but it might not topple the original in your affections. If you’re a fan of the SAC, you’ll like it less, I suspect. On my scale from “Never Watch It, Even If There Is Nothing Else On” to “Rent It” to “Full Price”, this is a solid matinee, and maybe a full price.

Here’s a cool little short out of Argentina…

Killer robots? Check. Marines in trouble? Check. Game over, man! Game over! Check

’80s style music? Check. Sci-fi setting with mythological callbacks? Check. Disney-ish computer animation? Check.

It’s like watching a newer version of a Heavy Metal story:

Why the #@!! am I not watching this now?

A little something from the Pixar gang:

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