Technically, this movie should have added an S to its Australian release title (in the States it was known as The Assignment) because there are really three revenge stories going on here. Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez with a fake beard and a pretty impressive prosthetic male body suit for the obligatory full frontal scene) is a low-life hitman who carries out a hit on spendthrift art collector and pinball aficionado, Sebastian Jane (Adrian Hough) who owed money to the mob. Unfortunately, Sebastian had a loving sister, Dr Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver) who is a disgraced and de-registered plastic surgeon now running an illegal surgery providing medical procedures for homeless people who can’t afford them. But her services are not entirely altruistic, given she dabbles in a bit of ‘mad-scientist’ experimentation on the side.
The homeless people are supplied to her by Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia) a small-time hood who, himself, has an axe to grind with Frank Kitchen due to another hit that happened to be on his cousin. So Honest John who is seeking revenge on Frank, delivers him to Dr Jane, who is also seeking revenge on Frank. Her revenge takes the form of an enforced gender reassignment for the spurious and generally ridiculous reason that he’ll become less violent if he’s no longer a man. So now Frank is a woman (say goodbye to the prosthetic and the fake beard) who, of course, is seeking revenge on whoever did this to her... or him.
Before going any further, I feel I should make the comment that in a time when sensitivities around the trans community are very present in the public mind and transphobia is a real issue, a story like this seems pretty tone deaf in the flippant way the subject of gender reassignment is treated. This isn’t the same as Humphrey Bogart unveiling a surgically altered face in Dark Passage (1947) or Nicholas Cage and John Travolta actually swapping faces in Face/Off (1997) and despite the inclusion of a token scene where post-surgery Frank consults a real doctor about reversing the procedure, seemingly in order for us to be told the strict protocols that exist around legitimate forms of gender reassignment, the screenwriters seem happy to assume that lip service (excuse the pun) to the issue is sufficient to allow them to use this idea more as a narrative gimmick than a crucial plot point.
Those screenwriters are Denis Hamil (Turk 182, 1985) and veteran writer, producer, director Walter Hill (The Warriors, 1979 - 48Hrs, 1982 – Alien 3, 1992). Hill, who’s also the director, is well known for his sharp, gritty and often violent take on the crime genre, going all the way back to his seminal work as a screenwriter for Sam Peckinpah on the 1972 Steve McQueen classic The Getaway. Sadly, that grit is nowhere to be seen in this blunt return to the genre. Even the violence is gratuitous and oddly without much gore. It’s such a waste of talent, not just Hill’s but also his excellent cast. Not even a score by composer Giorgio Moroder (remember him from Cat People, Flashdance and Scarface in the 80s?) can lift the film.
But REVENGER has more problems than just its dubious use of the trans subject. The story is a bit of a mishmash of convoluted storylines and flashbacks, told from both the perspective of Frank (whose narration starts the film) as well as from the perspective of Dr Jane who delivers the bulk of the backstory. We meet her in a psychiatric facility, bound in a straight jacket and sitting across the table from Dr Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub) whose job, it seems, is to share the clumsy delivery of exposition with her. There’s not a lot of logic at play here. Dr Jane, it seems, is a remarkably skilled plastic surgeon whose work is faultless and leaves no scarring (so she says). It also seems to require next to no recovery as the narrative timeline suggests that only a couple of weeks have passed since the surgery on Frank and yet here he/she is with no visible marks on the body, running around town shooting people and entering into a relationship of sorts with Johnnie (Caitlin Gerrard) who pre-surgery-Frank met as a hooker but who now seems to be a nurse who’s quite willing to provide shelter and more, whilst Frank puts her revenge plan together.
Despite the poor screenplay, some of Hill’s skill as a director still manages to shine through with stylish camerawork by James Liston and the use of screen wipes to shift timeframes in the storytelling. There’s also some nice use of ‘comic book’ style graphics to break up the scenes (a nod to the graphic novel version of this story that Hill produced with adapter Matz and illustrator Jeff). But none of that helps the story, nor does the restrictive way Shalhoub and Weaver are directed, spending almost the entire movie sitting at tables, which is far from conducive to good acting. In the end, it’s left to Rodriguez to do the heavy lifting and, for the most part, she’s enjoyable on-screen even if the film isn’t. But she’s got such a distinctive look that the gender shift doesn’t really work. For me, at least, it’s hard to buy her as a male character in the first part of the film. She just looks like she’s wearing a bad disguise. The impact of the change would have been much more effective if we’d really been able to believe the character of Frank as a man in the first act.
Overall, this film just doesn’t work on a number of different levels. It’s such a shame to see a great old-school writer/director of the calibre of Walter Hill turning out something that feels more like a movie-of-the-week. And not a very good one at that. Here’s hoping that he still has the creative juices somewhere in there to give us one more great, intelligently violent crime thriller to cap off his career... ‘cause this one certainly ain’t it.