It was widely assumed that The Apostle was Duvall's first film as director, though in fact he already had two efforts under his belt--1977's rodeo documentary We're Not the Jet Set and 1983's neorealist Angelo, My Love, starring a group of New York Gypsies as themselves. Assassination Tango is his fourth, yet it still feels like a first film; worse yet, it feels like a waste of an undeniably great actor.
You have to give the man credit for tenacity, though. Once again, he had a passion that no one else wanted to put on film for him (this time, it's the tango); once again, he had to direct, star in and produce the project himself. (That the World Trade Center appears in the beginning tells you how long he's been working on this.) Knowing that movies about Latin dances aren't exactly considered box-office gold (recall the grosses of Sally Potter's The Tango Lesson, if indeed you can remember the film's existence at all), he's gussied up the concept with a framing tale about a hit man with a passion for fancy footwork.
Duvall as a complex killer should be a slam dunk, but it's nowhere close. Without a director to rein him in, he gets lazy, relying way too much on his trademark tic of chuckling midword, midsentence. As the screenwriter, he's given himself a couple of wannabe iconic tough-guy scenes: one in which he kicks the bejeezus out of a pay phone and another that's essentially a riff on Joe Pesci's "funny how?" bit in GoodFellas, wherein Duvall's character terrorizes an acquaintance for suggesting that he looks tired. Duvall the actor also adopts a New York accent that rather blatantly recalls another Robert, De Niro, who would have been better in this role.
The story's simple: Dance-loving assassin John J. (Duvall) is a loving family man whose fiancee (Kathy Baker) and stepdaughter (Katherine Micheaux Miller) know nothing about his true profession. Sent south of the border to Argentina to knock off a military man, John demands to be back by the weekend so he can attend his little girl's birthday party. Of course, the plan gets fouled up: The General (Elvio Nessier) falls off a horse, and lands in the hospital under close guard for two to three weeks. Meanwhile, there are hints that the whole mission is a setup.
So what does John do? What anyone else would, under the circumstances. He watches tango; he talks about tango; he learns some of the history of tango, and flirts with a tango dancer. She's played by Duvall's real-life longtime girlfriend Luciana Pedraza, who has never acted before--if nothing else about the movie has yet screamed "vanity project!" that casting call certainly will. Pedraza's not terrible, but she doesn't emanate the kind of seductive power that her role calls for. Maybe it's that she and Duvall are too comfortable with each other--there's none of that early tension that potential partners sizing each other up have in spades.
There's an obvious metaphor here. Assassination is an elaborate dance, much like, yep, the tango. A highly symbolic panther also gets a gratuitous cameo to remind us that dancers and hit men are sleek and dangerous. But that's all. The story, or what passes for such, is almost irrelevant. It's initially confusing who exactly John is supposed to kill, and that doesn't seem like a deliberate decision by Duvall the writer-director, just the result of sloppy exposition. Later, when a setup is hinted at, the story never probes it. Why might there be a setup? By whom? The filmmakers don't seem to care; it's far more interesting for John to be sitting around talking to his beloved dancer's family about the history of tango, for what feels like hours. If that floats your boat, seems to me you'd probably rather see a movie that's actually about the history in question, instead of another "hit man with heart" melodrama.
To Duvall's credit, however, the camera angles herein are a lot more imaginative than in The Apostle.