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With: Robert Duvall, Rubén Blades, Kathy Baker, Luciana Pedraza, Julio Oscar Mechoso, James Keane
Written by: Robert Duvall
Directed by: Robert Duvall
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violence
Running Time: 114
Date: 09/11/2002

Assassination Tango (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

True to 'Tango'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When Joe Carnahan's Narc opened a few months ago, critics fell all over themselves praising the film for its stark, gritty '70s style. But the film was really just a typical half-written, modern-day thriller with a few low-budget camera tricks thrown in.

Now we have a real '70s-style movie in Robert Duvall's Assassination Tango, and those same film critics are turning up their noses. Why? Because Assassination Tango has very little to do with style -- or even plot -- and everything to do with the way a character moves.

Not to mention that Duvall was actually there in the '70s, working right alongside such filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Philip Kaufman, Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet and George Lucas -- all while Carnahan was still wearing jammies with feet.

In fact, Assassination Tango harkens back to one classic in particular: James Toback's Fingers (1978), which stars Harvey Keitel as a concert pianist who listens to pop music and works as a hitman for his mobster father. That was one of the great movies of the '70s, and it, too, fed more from character than plot mechanics.

The title Assassination Tango tells us all we need to know. Robert Duvall plays John J., a hitman sent to Argentina to take out a high-ranking general. But when the general is unexpectedly hospitalized for a few weeks, John winds up with nothing to do. So he explores the Argentine tango scene and meets the lovely Manuela (Luciana Pedraza, Duvall's real-life love and dance partner).

Complications set in because John has a steady girlfriend (Kathy Baker) at home, whose daughter (Katherine Micheaux Miller) he has become totally devoted to. At one point, he risks his life to rescue a pair of riding boots he has bought her as a present.

Mostly, though, Assassination Tango is about a man who falls in love with dancing -- not in a touchy-feely Dirty Dancing or Strictly Ballroom kind of way, but in a relaxed, organic manner. John spends time sitting with the locals and talking about the tango, getting to know the country and the feel of the dance as well as the steps. And all the while, he's still the consummate professional, preparing for the job he still has to do.

Duvall is a lover of tango in real life, and this film is clearly a labor of love -- or a "vanity project" as the detractors are calling it. Yet it's completely unself-conscious and without condescension; it's almost as if Duvall were not even aware that the camera was on.

Judging from response to the film thus far, I'd say that Assassination Tango is probably the season's most misunderstood movie. Reviewers are expecting it to fall into traditional, conventional categories like the "suspense movie" or the "love story." Instead, it's a personal, passionate gift from Duvall to us. And I, for one, accept.

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