Wednesday, September 14, 2005


This one will be rambling but I’ve been looking forward to it so it might be interesting.

The DVD of Assassination Tango has just come out. It brought many thoughts to me.

Robert Duvall is the most talented man in America.

He wrote, directed, produced and starred in this gem. (I can’t get over that he did his own singing in Tender Mercies.) In this one, he dances. Some say he’s an excellent dancer. I couldn’t say because the woman carries the partnership in the tango.

But what I could judge were the critics. Almost to a man they did not understand this picture. (They didn’t like it.)

That gives me a feeling of superiority. But it shouldn’t. Most critics suck. (One even made a negative comment about Duvall’s politics in his opening sentence. What an idiot.)

It’s the same old problem with critics. They keep forgetting, or never learned, that “quest” is the engine that drives the machine. The machine here being the story line. First discern the quest and then everything else falls into place.

Duvall’s character is a career assassin. He’s given a job to assassinate a retired Argentine general in Buenos Aires. His QUEST is to do the job and get back to his live-in lady friend’s little girl as soon as possible. Yes, he is a potential child molester. Add that to the fabric.

Credit Duvall. He had the guts to create this unsavory character on paper and then play him on the screen. Critics shudder at another level of interest. “Too much for us to handle, dude.”

As soon as he meets his contacts in Buenos Aires, Duvall starts to smell a rat, and so should the viewer. As the caper is laid out for him, pay attention to when Duvall responds, “interesting,” almost as a throwaway. Those are the points that don’t add up for him. That is some brilliant writing.

He tells them from the beginning that he needs a .222 rifle with scope to do the job. That’s the way he works, he tells them, from above. They assure him that he will have it. In the meantime they give him a tiny .22 revolver, almost a joke gun. He stresses that he wants to do the job and get out. He wants to be gone in two days (this is critical to the QUEST).

They set him up in a small rental room near his target and take him on an inept reconnaissance of the general’s home. The general, they tell him, is out in the country but is due back tomorrow.

Okay, but next day they tell him the general has met with an accident and will be delayed for perhaps two weeks. That is such a shock to Duvall his first reaction is denial. “No,” he says, “that’s not true.”

Then he does exactly what I would do, have done, in sparse accommodations in a third world country. He desperately seeks distractions to escape boredom. Thus he goes back to a tango studio that he had discovered when he first visited his contacts. Here he meets a delightfully non-Hollywood type leading lady, Luciana Pedraza, who is a great tango dancer and teacher. Pedraza, a beginner, does so well in underplaying her part that even Merrill Streep would have trouble equaling her.

After that the movie, for a while, switches back and forth between scenes with the amateurish Argentine contacts, Duvall’s secret preparations, and tango teaching and dancing sequences.

Duvall develops a close, platonic relationship with the fascinating Pedraza. On one occasion they visit a zoo in which Pedraza has become intrigued with a black leopard. The leopard, with its laid back energy, and hidden potential for violence, is a metaphor for Duvall, who is always dressed in black.

We also see his clever preparations. He furtively rents a room, also near his target, which allows unseen comings and goings. He recharges the cartridges in his ‘toy’ gun with powerful powder and suddenly it is a toy no more.

I could go on and completely ruin it for you but suffice it to say that this is a picture worth seeing, not a masterpiece but a gem. The tango stuff is, of course, a conceit of Mr. Duvall. But it’s interesting and he earns our attention with the realism of the rest of the picture. It is a realism reminiscent of the best of John LeCarre which is high praise indeed.

I totally believed the setting and the characters. Duvall’s unassuming, nondescript, aging assassin is a textbook of how an assassin achieves age. A Stallone or Schwarzenegger type is doomed to failure in the real world of people on guard against dangerous adversaries. LeCarre’s George Smiley, as portrayed by Alec Guiness in two marvelous BBC series’, is the perfect model of an undercover operative. Duvall’s characterization fits into that mold precisely.

In LeCarre’s stories, very often a dangerous adversary is picked out at a glance. Usually because they are Russian ex-military and their bearing gives them away.

It all reminded me of an incident in my early days in Viet Nam. I was sent to the central highlands to work among the mountain tribes. In my first month there, with two other Americans, I visited the marketplace in Pleiku. Almost immediately I spotted my first Viet Cong. He was the only one there, in a crowded marketplace, wearing a loose poncho on a sunny day. It wasn’t just that. One look at his eyes told me that this was a serious character. I had seen that look on smugglers on the Iran-Iraq border. I was to see it later in American units that had just come out of the boonies.

The surprising thing to me at the time was that I was the only one who had seemed to notice this dangerous chap in the marketplace. Even worse, he had seen me notice him. Our eyes had met in a mutual recognition.

Then began a little game of maneuver. He edged toward me. I tried to keep people between us. There was no doubt in my mind that he was concealing a weapon under that poncho that he was wearing in clear weather.

This was in June of 1962. There were only a handful of Americans in the highlands. We were more of a curiosity than anything else. That, it turned out, was my Viet Cong’s motive. He was probably seeing his first American and was curious, nothing more.

The point is that, in the real world, it is important that a dangerous man not appear to be dangerous. In order to survive, he must appear unthreatening. That is how Duvall’s character managed to become an aging assassin.

See it. It’s an interesting movie.


Blogger Das said...

Terrific review, great observations Walter; I liked this movie too and couldn not understand the critical nay saying...You make me want to see it again.

I didn't quite get the "screw up" of the Argentine side. His first contacts really did want to get rid of the general. Who betrayed the team in Argentina? Or was the whole thing a set-up from the beginning? I couldn't tell.

I was sold on Duvall in The Apostle; I agree the man is the real thing.

September 20, 2005 at 9:39 AM  
Blogger Walter Guest said...

You're right. There were loose ends that I cannot explain. It might happen that way in real life but it cheats the audience in a movie.
Also the letter from Pedraza at the end is completely out of character. The Duvall assassin would never leave a means of contact.
And, my mistake, the black cat in the zoo was a panther, not leopard.

September 21, 2005 at 9:05 PM  

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