(director/writer: Robert Duvall; cinematographer: Felix Monti; editor: Stephen Mack; music: Luis Bacalov; cast: Robert Duvall (John J. Anderson), Rubén Blades (Miguel), Kathy Baker (Maggie), Luciana Pedraza (Manuela), Katherine Micheaux Miller (Jenny), Frank Gio (Club Owner, Frankie), Julio Oscar Mechoso (Orlando), James Keane (Whitey), Raúl Outeda (Tony Manas), Elvio Nessier (General Humberto Rojas), Maria Nieves (Maria); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Robert Duvall/Rob Carliner; United Artists; 2002)
“I loved this film for what it didn’t try to do.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Writer-director-actor-co-producer Robert Duvall creates a quirky dancer hitman flick, that is based less on plot than on a character study of a 72-year-old Brooklyn gangster with a passion for dancing and caring for his 10-year-old stepdaughter. It’s his first solo creative effort behind the camera since The Apostle, and is my favorite oddball hit-man flick since Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. The thriller plot in itself would make for a fairly entertaining though slight story, but it gives way to a more absorbing whimsical and sentimental portrayal of a self-absorbed and vain man who is obsessed with being an efficient machine-like assassin and a passionate lover of the tango and nurturing stepfather and family man. It was absurd, but who cares when Duvall is so wonderful on the screen. The Duvall character is a secretive spinning ball of enthusiasm, who has tics and a goofy set of values and a vulgar sense of humor. He’s a low-level hood who likes the taste of the finer things in life, and realizes that his macho loner thing has some drawbacks as he is compulsively drawn to doing the family thing. He comes off somewhat like the veteran thug in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob The Gambler, as their eccentricities and charming personalities make us forget that they’re both bad guys. We get inside Duvall’s head as he alternates between softness and hardness, as he secretly mixes business with pleasure in his soulful but evasive search for himself.
I loved this film for what it didn’t try to do–become formulaic and adjust to the conformity of the genre. It had a cheekiness and a naturalistic style that made its goofy flavorings and its colorful location shots of Buenos Aires come to life in a thrilling manner, though when all the dancing and shooting stops it was admittedly not a pic that leaves one much to ponder. Duvall strikes the pose of an old-time boxer, and wears his long silver hair tied back in a fashionable ponytail while also sporting a mustache. In a funny bit an ex-cop friend, whom he’s lukewarm to, suggests he looks tired, which gets him to go off on an irrational tirade about how he doesn’t appreciate any negative comments about his age.
The film opens in the seedy area around Coney Island where John J. (Duvall) and his live-in girlfriend’s elementary school daughter Jenny are sitting at an outdoor table at Frankie’s, a popular dance club, and the two show by their casual talk how much affection they have for each other. John promises that he will not miss her upcoming birthday. Jenny’s mom, Maggie, works as a nail stylist in a beauty salon and is clueless that her boyfriend is a professional hit-man. She gladly accepts his generous financial support and the money he provides for Jenny’s horse jumping lessons. When he must leave the country, she’s told that he’s been hired as a consultant for a security firm and accepts that without questioning him further.
Frankie is not only the owner of a dance club and ex-boxer and an old pal of John’s and a colorful character who rides in a limo with poodles, but he is a small-time gangster kingpin who arranges hit contracts. He informs John there’s more money for him in this next job because it is unique and requires him to assassinate a wealthy retired Argentine general in Buenos Aires. He swears it should only take three days, which should allow him to keep his promise to Jenny. In Argentina, John is met by Miguel (Ruben Blades), who takes him to the home of Orlando and his saddened wife whose son the general had killed. John when told how the general was a human rights violator, mentions that he could care less about the general’s politics. He only wants to do the job quickly and efficiently. But a problem arises when the general has a minor accident and will remain hospitalized in the country for another three weeks.
Angry and distrustful of all his contacts except for the owner of a boxing club, Tony Manas, who set the deal up with Frankie, John is forced to kill time in Buenos Aires. He does it by falling madly in love with the passionate way they do the tango in this country. The tango is equated with the meaning of life, just like it was in Carlos Saura’s 1998 Tango and Sally Potter’s 1997 The Tango Lesson. After following the dancers in the clubs John chooses as his teacher a woman half his age, the classy and willowy black-haired beauty Manuela (Luciana Pedraza, first time acting and longtime girlfriend of Duvall). She becomes his guide into the exotic world of the tango and into the mysterious dance clubs where it is performed. It seems as if John has lost track of his real reason for being here as he platonic ally courts the dancer by making small talk and getting all hot about learning some new steps, and when he’s not dancing he’s buying expensive gifts for Maggie and Jenny.
Intuitively John smells something not kosher about the job, and when the general returns executes the assassination early without telling anyone else. But he runs into problems as the police somehow get wind of him and try to nab him before he flees the country.
The beauty in the film is in the nuanced and commanding performance by Duvall, the engaging presence of Pedrazza, all the improv Cassavetes-like chatter that either rubs you the right or wrong way, and the intangible qualities of the tango that make it such a special dance. All these things worked for me, and I was not disappointed that the plot just seems to be an excuse for making a dance film. I might add a hot dance film with a few cold-blooded killings to satisfy the crime film fans, and many enjoyable small touches in the characterizations that add up and make this an unusual and fascinating and sincere film.
REVIEWED ON 7/20/2003 GRADE: B+