You Won’t Stay Awake Long Enough to Be Riled by the Transphobia of ‘The Assignment’
The Assignment’s worst offense is that it is boring.
Walter Hill’s B-movie about a male hitman named Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) who forcibly undergoes sex reassignment surgery at the hand of a vengeful doctor (Sigourney Weaver) has been loudly criticized in advance by GLAAD and other LGBT critics—myself included—for sensationalizing transgender medical care. (Rodriguez’s since-deleted Instagram post about the “man implants” and “fake hairy ‘mangina’” she wore in character didn’t exactly smooth things over with trans people, either.)
But having subjected myself to all of the movie’s 95 minutes this weekend now that it’s available on video on demand, I can confirm that I fell asleep long before I felt the urge to take to my keyboard to excoriate it for being transphobic.
A few naps later, here I am.
The Assignment is about a guy named Frank who shoots people for money—including, unbeknownst to him, the brother of a doctor who performs off-the-book surgeries for trans people at an illegal clinic.
Frank has a beard and wears a leather jacket and talks in a gravelly voice because he’s a bad, bad man who does bad, bad things.
Then the doctor captures him and feminizes his whole body—genitals included—so that he looks a lot like Michelle Rodriguez.
Frank screams “No!” a bunch of times upon seeing his new reflection and he’s understandably shaken by the whole ordeal for a few minutes of runtime. But he dusts himself off, puts his leather jacket back on, and keeps talking in a gravelly voice because he’s still a bad, bad man who does bad, bad things. Except now Frank shoots people for revenge rather than cash.
There are a few key moments in which male characters’ perceptions of Frank’s altered body further things along but, setting those aside, this is a straight-up revenge flick that barely qualifies as an action movie.
That’s because most of the “action” consists of Frank walking into different kinds of grungy rooms, pointing pistols at various armed henchmen who suddenly lose all of their reflexes, and killing them. Rinse, lather, repeat.
There’s no tension, no payoff, and since very few people—besides transgender people, ironically enough—understand what it’s like to feel extreme discomfort with their own secondary sex characteristics, the movie’s not likely to produce much in the way of emotional investment, either. There’s a reason, after all, why most movie hitmen are driven by either money or the death of a loved one.
As it stands, the film tries and fails to be both a cathartic revenge saga and a body horror movie—one that, as Daniel Villarreal noted for the playfully named LGBT website Unicorn Booty, seems “meant to make cisgender audiences squirm” at the effects of sex reassignment surgery.
Frank, to be clear, is not transgender himself. This is not a “transgender thriller,” as some viewers have described it. This is a movie that callously uses a transgender surgery as a plot point in an attempt to be shocking.
That said, there are two odd moments in which The Assignment appears to clumsily parry off accusations of transphobia: The first occurs when the doctor—who is recounting the film’s events to an investigating physician while confined in a mental hospital—goes on a tangent about sex reassignment surgery’s “endless waiting period” and “enormous costs,” which make it difficult for many transgender people to access this often-medically necessary care.
This would be a great message—if it weren’t delivered by the film’s villain while she struts around the room in a straitjacket.
(Later, she says that she’s “hugely sympathetic” to people who seek sex reassignment surgery due to gender dysphoria—while videotaping a confession about “defy[ing] conventional morality” through experimental medicine.)
The second sympathetic moment takes place when Frank goes to see a different doctor about getting his penis back.
The doctor is believably alarmed by the suddenness of Frank’s transformation, referring to the standard yearlong waiting period before surgery and giving some in-the-ballpark estimates about how long it will take his new patient to re-develop sexual sensation.
But whatever authentic details crop up in that conversation, they are offset by a host of inaccuracies about gender transition that push the willing suspension of disbelief past its limits—even for a B-movie.
Most noticeably, Frank wakes up after the surgery without any scars, an impossibility that the film hilariously tries to explain away by suggesting that Weaver’s doctor is just that good at her work.
The only aftercare we see Frank do is popping a few hormone pills—which, of course he dry-swallows because he’s a bad, bad man. (A smaller detail that only someone who has gone through this surgery might notice: Frank has a copious amount of pubic hair after the procedure even though it would have to have been removed in order for a surgeon—even a criminal one—to perform the operation.)
By the time I had successfully kept my eyes open until the end credits, I was almost disappointed that The Assignment didn’t just lean into being offensive and exploitative rather than trying to have its cake and eat it too, simultaneously using transgender surgery for shock value while going out of its way not to appear transphobic.
It still would have been an awful snoozefest of a movie, sure, but at least it would have been a consistently awful snoozefest of a movie.
It makes sense, then, that the original story behind The Assignment’s script, as director Walter Hill described it to Rolling Stone, was much more straightforward in its transphobic imagery: a “juvenile delinquent who brutally rapes and murders a woman” is forcibly feminized and released into the world where he “reverts back to his pathological behavior” and murders people without being immediately apprehended by the cops because they’re looking for a man.
This version of the movie would have echoed the age-old stereotype of the murderous transsexual woman—seen in such films as Psycho and Silence of the Lambs—even more loudly than the substantially toned-down finished product already does.
“I wouldn’t make a movie that hurt transgender people,” Hill told Rolling Stone. “Some of them have had a tough time of it, and the last thing I want to do is make anyone’s road harder.”
Lucky for him, The Assignment is more soporific than it is hurtful.