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The Assignment
(1997)

Director: Christian Duguay
Cast:
Aidan Quinn, Donald Sutherland, Ben Kingsley


I try to keep myself feeling cheerful, a large part of that coming from the movies that I review and subsequently write reviews about for this web site. Still, there are some things that occasionally cause me to worry until I can find something else to take my mind off the bothersome topic. One of those things that worries me is terrorism. You may wonder why I worry about that. After all, I live in Canada, which at first glance doesn't seem to be as hot a target for terrorists as say the United States. But I can say that I have personally had a near brush with terrorism. Let me explain. The Canadian city that I live in happens to be the capital city of the province it lies in, and as a result there are a lot of politicians in this city. Many of them meet at a group of buildings called the Legislature, also known as the Parliament Buildings. Anyway, several years ago there were a couple of people who decided that for their cause they were going to detonate explosives on Canada Day at the Legislature grounds in order to hurt and kill the crowds of tourists and local residents that gather there on that day every year. When they got close to pulling off that plan, the police stepped in and arrested the two. The police shortly afterwards told the press that they had been monitoring the two would-be terrorists for quite a while, and had made covert manoeuvers before the arrest to make sure that the explosives could not have been detonated. Although that news from the police was reassuring, all the same I felt a chill from a close brush with terrorism... especially since the apartment building that I live in is only a mile away from the Legislature buildings.

As you can probably imagine, that incident kind of shook me up, and has subsequently many times made me wonder about terrorism. It has made me wonder what causes someone to decide to pull off an act of terrorism, as well as wondering if I could ever consider myself safe from that threat. But most of all, it has made me wonder what can be done to stop threats of terrorism from actually happening. When you think about, conventional warfare with stuff like bombing with drones only does so much, since many terrorists actually don't live in the countryside or on battlefields. So other methods have to be thought of. One such method that has often been used has been with people infiltrating terrorists groups - in other words, spies. For quite some time I have been fascinated by this idea. Often I wonder how our forces manage to recruit people to spy in the first place. It seems such a dangerous job, that I can tell you that there is no amount of money that would convince me to go under cover in order to infiltrate a terrorist group. Still, I know there are some people who would accept the risk. But once they are recruited, I wonder how they are trained to become spies. At any point, do they have to run through an obstacle course that in part requires them to nimbly step through tires lying on the ground? Maybe not, but I am pretty sure that the spies have to do an incredible amount of studying and work in order to not only be convincing to the people they are spying, but to also be prepared for any situation that may come up during the long period of spying.

Because of my curiosity about spying, I have eagerly sat down in front of my TV many times to watch movies concerning the subject. However, while I have been entertained by many such movies, my thirst for knowledge concerning what makes a spy hasn't been quenched that often. The bulk of the James Bond movies aren't exactly to be taken seriously, for one thing. So when I found a The Assignmentcopy of the movie The Assignment, I was pretty happy. It not only promised to devote a lot of time to the training of a spy, but it also happened to be based on a true story. Adding to the interest was the fact it was directed by talented Canadian director Christian Duguay (Live Wire). (Yes, the movie is Canadian.) The U.S. distributor barely released it on its home turf, which of course meant that with no U.S. publicity to leech off of, the Canadian distributor also barely released it on its home turf. All the same, I decided to watch it because it was, unlike most Canadian movies, a real movie. The true story The Assignment was inspired by was the real life pursuit of Carlos The Jackal. CIA agent Jack Shaw (Sutherland, Dan Candy's Law) has been tracking Carlos for years, but Carlos not only remains elusive, he comes close to killing Shaw when he blows up a Parisian cafe Shaw is at. Twelve years later, in Israel, Mossad agent Amos (Kingsley, The Fifth Monkey) and several of his men believe they spot Carlos at a public market, and they quickly capture him. But during the subsequent interrogation of his prisoner, Amos discovers that his prisoner is not Carlos. He is in fact an American naval officer named Annibal Ramirez (Quinn, Elementary) that looks remarkably like the real Carlos. The understandably enraged Annibal is let go, but word of this look-alike soon reaches Shaw. Shaw tracks down Annibal, and in short order asks Annibal to go under training so he can not only look like Carlos, but act like him. The plan is that Annibal, passing himself off as Carlos, will commit various damaging acts in the field that will damage Carlos' standing with his sponsors. Eventually, and reluctantly, Annibal agrees. Shaw and Amos take Annibal up to Canada for a long period of often brutal training. After going through his training, Annibal is deemed ready, and he begins his undercover assignment. But Annibal soon finds out that keeping up his deception will not be easy.

After watching The Assignment, I spent some time thinking about why the U.S. distributor decided to not give it much of a release. One possible theory I came up with is that U.S. distributors have for the most part over the decades not thought that Canadian films have much commercial potential, even the rare times when they have blatant commercial elements like this movie has. But while The Assigment has commercial elements like A list talent in its cast, I think the U.S. distributor was concerned that the movie was all the same a tough sell to mainstream audiences. One reason being the movie is not a typical dumb wall to wall action film. For one thing, as I reported in the previous paragraph, the movie spends a considerable amount of time showing the training of the hero before he is let loose on his assignment. I know what some readers may be thinking after reading that last paragraph - "Bo-ring!" But that's not actually the case. While the training takes a considerable amount of the running time (over thirty minutes by my count), none of it has a dry spot. The training is designed so that Annibal will eventually not just act like Carlos, but also to think just like him, in order to ensure the deception. The various exercises that Annibal is put through are more often than not unique and unlike training montages from other movies I've seen. The character of Shaw tells Annibal early on, "If you get comfortable, you'll be killed." Indeed, the training has some very uncomfortable moments for Annibal. The training not only gives the audience some idea as to what real undercover operatives must have to go through, it also gives some answers as to why undercover operatives do - or don't do - certain things. At one point, Annibal asks that if the western powers have managed to get close enough to get photographs of Carlos, why they haven't been able to take him out. We get an answer to that question.

Another interesting aspect to the training portion of the movie is that we get to see how it makes a psychological impact on our hero. Actually, it starts before the training. Annibal at first wants nothing at all to do with going undercover, but we see how Shaw is able to wear him down by various schemes, schemes that you can believe would work on just about everyone. Later, after Annibal comes home to his family after spending much time pretending to be Carlos, we get to see how the training and the sometimes violent field work have seriously warped his personality. While there is an interesting scene with his wife wanting some explanation, I don't think the movie deals with Annibal's changed personality quite enough, seeing that the issue is pretty much dropped after that scene plays out. Fortunately, The Assignment goes into depth with its characters in other aspects enough to make up for this shortcoming. Donald Sutherland's C.I.A. character is played out somewhat differently that you may expect. I wouldn't say his character is extremely sympathetic - his devious actions to recruit Annibal border on shameful, and he quickly dismisses Annibal's concerns and protests out on the field - but we do get to see another side of him. At one point, Shaw tells Annibal that he has no friends and family, and his obsession to bring in Carlos has taken over his life completely. As well, we get to see how ruthless Carlos is, so we can have a little sympathy for Shaw since he is trying desperately to stop Carlos. Another interesting character look is with the character Ben Kingsley plays. Mossad agent Amos' first appearance fills our hero with understandable hatred towards him. But as the movie goes on, Annibal's opinion towards Amos slowly changes, so that by the last scene that the two characters share, there is a definite emotional impact for not only both characters, but the audience as well.

Aidan Quinn, Donald Sutherland, and Ben Kingsley all give very good performances in their roles, roles that give them a lot of opportunity to show various aspects of their characters. The screenplay and the actors compliment each other very well. But I think that a good amount of the movie's success has to also fall on director Christian Duguay's shoulders as well. For starters, he makes the movie frequently visually interesting. He gets the attention of the audience immediately by starting the movie with a two and a half minute long uninterrupted shot that travels from a Parisian street to the interior of a room several stories above. Duguay chooses some interesting locations to shoot in (the movie was shot in Canada, Hungary, and Israel), and often uses unconventional camera angles to add interest to these locations. Where Duguay shines most, however, are the scenes involving action and violence. Though there aren't a great deal of these scenes, they are all very tense and exciting as they play out, a Duguay trademark. But Duguay adds something else to these scenes that another director might not have included, that being that we get to see the subsequent consequences of the action and violence. The opening Paris cafe bombing has some breathtaking visuals when the grenade explodes, but right after the blast has stopped, Duguay shows us the injured and dying at length. Later moments of action also have that same element that prevents us from enjoying violence at the moment it's playing out, or right after the dust starts to settle. The message that Duguay is sending out is pretty clear: Terrorism - as well as the spying that's done to stop it - is very dirty business. This message helps make The Assignment much more than your typical dumb action movie. This may have doomed it from being well distributed to a mainstream audience, but those rare individuals who want something with a good deal of smarts as well as style will find it an oasis in a sea of simple-minded cinema.

(Posted April 5, 2018)

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See also: Defense Play, King Of The Kickboxers, Tuareg - The Desert Warrior

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