March 8, 2004 -- “The Assignment” is a stylish spy thriller without the glitz and romanticism usually associated with this genre. This film is decidedly non-formula, with a lot of surprising twists. It is also very unglamorous and utilitarian in its approach to the spy game. Solid acting and an intelligent, hard-boiled script keep this film well above the level of the average spy thriller. This film was released in 1997. I saw it recently on DVD.
Aidan Quinn of “Songcatcher”) stars as Annibal Ramirez, an American naval officer who is recruited by the CIA to help assassinate a notorious terrorist, Carlos “The Jackal.” Ramirez is recruited because he looks just like The Jackal (of course Quinn plays both roles in the movie). Ramirez is recruited for the mission by Henry Fields (alias Jack Shaw, played by Donald Sutherland of “Cold Mountain”), a man who has been humiliated, and almost killed, by Carlos. Fields is very manipulative as he molds Ramirez into a spy. Ramirez slowly learns the skills that will help him become a virtual copy of The Jackal. The idea is to have Ramirez play the Jackal. By his actions, he needs to convince the Soviets that Carlos has become a double agent, spying for the U.S. The Soviets will then assassinate Carlos, taking care of The Jackal.
Ramirez is trained by Fields and by Amos (Ben Kingsley of “House of Sand and Fog”), an operative in the Israeli spy agency, the Mossad. Ramirez and Amos have an interesting relationship because Amos arrested and harshly interrogated Ramirez in Israel, thinking him to be Carlos. The training is strenuous physically and psychologically. Ramirez is cleverly conditioned psychologically to react to certain foods and situations just as Carlos would. In most spy movies, no attention is paid to training, or the psychological problems caused by such training or work. Ramirez is changed by the training and by the trauma of field work. He becomes dangerous to others, and a stranger to his wife (Claudia Ferri).
The spy operation does not go smoothly and things get very ugly and messy. People are killed. In most spy movies, things go smoother and cleaner. This film seemed to me to be more realistic because it shows how things can go wrong, despite the best planning and training. This film does not show spy work as glamorous at all. The plot takes off in unexpected directions, too. The structure of the plot is very unusual. Unexpected things keep happening. Many spy movie formulas are broken and ruined by the time this film is over. One of the reasons the film is interesting to watch is the unusual camera work. A terrorist bombing by Carlos early in the film is beautifully shot in slow motion with amazing fire and blast effects. One interesting shot seems to come from a camera that is rolling vertically straight down a wall. Cinematography is by Christian Duguay (who is also the film's director) and David Franco (“The Whole Nine Yards”).
The cast creates very realistic characters in this film, led by Aiden Quinn, who plays the reluctant hero, as well as the evil villain, Carlos. Veteran actor Donald Sutherland is perfect as the manipulative, ruthless CIA chief who will do anything to get Carlos. Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley is also very effective as an equally ruthless Mossad agent. Sutherland and Kingsley bring a kind of hard-nosed, intelligent, practical approach to the spy game. Sutherland, especially, seems to enjoy it, but is still deadly serious. This approach seems very much like Tom Clancy's approach to espionage, but with less emphasis on gadgets. Kudos to the scriptwriters, Dan Gordon (“The Hurricane”) and Sabi H. Shabtai for an intelligent story with lots of interesting twists. This film rates a B.
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