Friday 17 March 2017

Michelle Rodriguez gives it her best shot but transgender hitman thriller Tomboy is irredeemably rotten

Let's hear it for the Boy: Nah, let's not...

Tomboy (aka The Assignment, aka [re]Assignment)
Director: Walter Hill
Starring: Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shaloub
Running time: 1hr 35mins

If I awoke one morning to discover I'd been transformed overnight into Michelle Rodriguez, I suspect my reaction might go something like this: "YAHHHHHOOOOOO! I look exactly like Hollywood actress Michelle Rodriguez and am no longer a clapped-out old white bloke with a beer belly and pipe-cleaner arms. Just check out my toned abs, pert bosom and firm backside. I'm bloody gorgeous!" (My wife might be a bit iffy about the whole situation at first, but I'm sure she'd come round).

Alas, when the exact same thing happens to Frank Kitchen, in Tomboy, he isn't jubilant at all. In fact, horrified, he gazes into a mirror and starts howling like a kicked dog. You see, Frank was once a badass hitman and being turned into a boobs-and-beaver-owning lady - even one as scrummy as our Michelle - well and truly pisses on his macho chips.

I could perhaps better understand Frank's unhappiness if, during his many years spent as a chap, he'd looked like, say, Ray Winstone or John Wayne - a right rugged geezer who struck matches on his chin and shat bullets. But he didn't. In fact, he looked exactly like Michelle Rodriguez would wearing a false beard - and not a very convincing one at that. Clearly, the definition of what constitutes 'macho' has drifted a bit over the years. Obama's fault, I imagine.

And what has brought poor Frank to this pretty post-penis pass? Well, it turns out that, in his role as a badass hitman, he has bumped off Sebastian (Adrian Hough), the disturbed brother of Doctor Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), and she's decidedly upset about it. Not so upset that she wants Frank dead, you understand, only perturbed enough to use all her skills as a rogue surgeon cum mad scientist to turn him into a beautiful woman. I'm not sure Doctor Kay thought it through, did she? It's like getting revenge on someone for burning down your house by giving them a million pounds.

Instead of heading for Hollywood to get work as Rodriguez's body double on the latest Fast & Furious movie, Frank hides out with a young nurse, with whom she'd had a pre-surgery one-night stand. Plotting revenge, newly-female Frank starts gunning down anyone connected with Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia), the man who betrayed her, as she works her way towards Weaver in the film's final boss level.

Rod for her own back: Stick to Fast & Furious, Michelle

The whole thing is so cack-handed and insensitive that it's hard to know where to begin. Actually, let's start with that title. Calling the movie [re]Assignment or The Assignment was clumsy enough (Frank's 'assignment' to kill the doctor's brother led to her gender 'reassignment'. Get it?), but surely Tomboy is a hundred times worse. Firstly, a tomboy is "a girl who exhibits characteristics or behaviours considered typical of a boy" and Frank demonstrably isn't that; he's a man who has physically transitioned - albeit against his will - into a woman. They are two completely different things. It's like making a film about, say, a zebra, and calling it 'Horse', simply because you can't be arsed to look up the difference. Secondly, the wretched movie now shares a title with CĂ©line Sciamma's vastly superior 2011 film, which explores the subject of gender fluidity through the eyes of a young girl, who self-identifies as a boy. It's a warm, gentle and rewarding piece of work, and I find the idea it will now share Google search space with this oddly upsetting. Perhaps director Walter Hill should have just called his picture Dick/Off and been done with it.

Worst of all, though, is the idea buried just below Tomboy's surface: that gender reassignment surgery is worse than death - a terrible punishment to be inflicted only on your most implacable enemy. And worse, being turned into a woman is somehow a demotion. At one point, Kitchen even seeks out a doctor and looks like she's been given a terminal diagnosis when told the operation isn't reversible. But, despite worries she's turning "soft" and doubts about being able to satisfy girlfriend Johnnie (yes, really), Frank appears every bit as efficiently ruthless as she ever was, despatching Honest John's goons as if channelling John Wick.

The premise is ridiculous but, in the right hands, could have been handled with humanity and humour. Director/co-writer Hill is never interested in letting Frank explore what it's like to transition - there are no moments when he's allowed to think about it, to truly experience it. Hill, who originally conceived the story as a graphic novel, is so busy playing up its pulpy roots (there are moments, Sin City-style, where the action morphs into cartoonish artwork) he forgets that even the crassest comic-book movies make time for a little reflection.

Over his many decades in Hollywood, Hill - now 75 - has given us thrilling action flicks such as The Warriors and The Driver, as well as buddy comedies such as 48 Hours and Red Heat. His stuff is very loud, very male; he probably thinks sensitivity and restraint are Rihanna's backing singers and he's demonstrably not the right person to be allowed anywhere near a film about so delicate a subject. That said, perhaps Tomboy doesn't need to be sensitive and restrained, maybe it just needs to be a hell of a lot cleverer. Paul Verhoeven's Elle (billed as a 'rape revenge black comedy') and Teeth (2007's whip-smart vagina dentata movie) prove that even the most unpromising premises can be spun into gold with the right filmmaker at the helm, some interesting ideas and a great script.

Strait no chaser: Sigourney Weaver under lock and key in Tomboy

Rodriguez is game, I'll give her that. As pre-op Frank, she affects an unconvincingly gruff voice, as well as donning the aforementioned beard and even a pretend penis in one scene, before disrobing almost completely to try and sell the reassignment idea, grabbing in frantic horror at her breasts as if she'd had a couple of cauliflowers grafted onto her chest. Weaver, on the other hand, looks like she's in a hostage video, dully reciting turgid, overripe dialogue that would make George Lucas blush.

In fact, the Alien actress's scenes with Tony Shaloub's psychiatrist are uniformly dreadful, some of the worst in any film I've seen in the past year. Set after her final confrontation with Frank, the sequences act as a framing device - Weaver expositioning like there's no tomorrow while occasionally mentioning her character's love for Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe (we're supposed to take her for a great intellect because she can quote from Richard II and The Raven, apparently). These moments bring the action to a juddering halt because they are so inert - Weaver, straitjacketed and sat behind a table at a mental institution, exchanging huge gobs of unwieldy dialogue with Shaloub; the kind of stuff no one says in real life.

Like an obstinate turd that refuses to be flushed round the U-bend, I have a horrible feeling Tomboy is going to become something of a cult in the coming years: an un-PC B-movie that people who should know better watch 'ironically'. "It's so bad, it's good," they'll chirp in that punchable way of theirs. Unfortunately, the only thing good about Hill's rotten film is the moment it ends.  

Rating: W

Tomboy is available on VOD now, and gets a DVD release on 3 April

Ratings guide
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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