The Assignment (1997)

D: Christian Duguay
S: Aidan Quinn, Donald Sutherland, Ben Kingsley

Modestly budgeted thriller with good performances and a reasonable level of craft. The plot is a fanciful bit of speculation about the latter days of the real-life international terrorist Carlos 'The Jackal' (portrayed here by Aidan Quinn). CIA man Donald Sutherland plans a sting operation with the help of Israeli intelligence operative Ben Kingsley and a Cuban-American naval officer who bears an uncanny resemblance to the terrorist (natch, because he is also played by Quinn). The idea is to flush Carlos out by making the man into his double, which involves much standard spy-training stuff (early on Quinn refuses the mission saying "the guy you want is Bond, James Bond...") and some identity slippage (Face/Off, Manhunter) as the officer becomes more like his quarry every day.

The film essentially consists of a series of fairly generic set pieces, mostly well mounted by director Christian Duguay (Scanners II, Screamers). There are a couple of good foot chases and shoot outs, and Duguay makes use of high angle shots and slow-motion to add a bit of variety to scenes of mass destruction which take place from time to time (with not terribly convincing post-production pyrotechnics added to many explosions). On the whole it moves well and though generic to a fault, it does successfully pull the various elements together more or less consistently. There are one or two moments of reflection in there, to be fair, mostly revolving around Quinn's change of personality and with one or two digs at political tensions in the U.S. Navy, but they also follow fairly generic lines and never result in any surprises.

The film is helped immeasurably by its three leading performers, who give it an added level of watchability. Quinn does fine in his dual role, and enjoys the usual thespian acrobatics portraying two men who eventually become more like each other while remaining distinctive personalities. The ever-dependable Sutherland could easily have slept through his role, but with true professionalism, he adds a convincing dash of bitterness, meanness, and humanity to the proceedings in a standard-issue character. Kingsley adds a touch of class while he's on, and even gets to play one action scene for his trouble. The three interact well and give the movie plenty of life throughout the lengthy training sequences, and the editing is just quick enough to prevent generic familiarity from overwhelming things.

This is not hi-octane stuff (though it is violent), and makes a contrast with the majority of big-budget Hollywood productions as a result. It is interesting to observe that the lower budget lends itself to this kind of increasingly rare relatively low-key thriller, and to note that all things considered, it is a pretty solid picture. Perfect video or DVD fodder with the added benefit of the big name performers.

Note: The Region 2 DVD features no extras, other than very slim biographical portraits of the stars and the "interactive menus, scene access" which many companies try to pass off as features even on big budget films.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.