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film: Shooting Blanks

Despite the oddball yet likable performance of writer/director/star Robert Duvall, "Assassination Tango" mostly misses its target.


Sporting a scraggly gray ponytail, Duvall is John J., an older, dance-loving Brooklyn hit man, whose bowlegged swagger just barely masks the heavy toll age and experience have taken on him. Living quietly with unglamorous, loving girlfriend Maggie (Kathy Baker) and her 10-year-old daughter Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller), John J. is quite content. But when he's sent to Argentina for a "hit," he meets the sultry dancer Manuela (Luciana Pedraza) and falls in love with her as well as with the tango she dances. Although Duvall the actor gets John J. just right, the writer Duvall doesn't give us much of a sense of what motivates him.

"Assassination Tango" is clearly a very personal movie for Duvall, who's been a fan of the tango — as well as a student — for more than 15 years. It's equally obvious that he wrote, directed and produced the movie so he could cast his real-life Argentine girlfriend in the role of Manuela.

As many such "personal" projects often are, "Assassination Tango" is occasionally fascinating, but more often uneven. It's an artist sharing his obsession with a wide audience, and while not all of us will share his fervor, we can understand why he needed to make this movie. But big chunks of the story seem to be missing, so although it's quite watchable, making sense of it all is impossible. Yet every now and then, we catch a glimmer of why Duvall is so enchanted by the tango as well as with Miss Pedraza.

Having said all that, the movie's biggest misstep is making the tango — both the dance and the one playing out between John J. and Manuela — take a back seat to the movie's run-of-the-mill assassination plot. In fact, it's a good 40 minutes before we see the barest hint of the dance of lovers.

But when John J. first encounters a "real" tango in a slightly worn-down club in Buenos Aires (where his "hit" lives), the movie finally finds its rhythm. Resembling an elegant, Argentine Ali McGraw, the long-limbed Pedraza has an oddly intriguing brusqueness and a voice that's part growl and part honey. She and Duvall also share real chemistry, which is not necessarily a given when off-screen couples try to move their romance on-screen.

And the tango sequences are handled with an unexpected intelligence. Resisting the urge to show off his tango prowess, Duvall keeps most of John J.'s partnering of Manuela as fantasy sequences. But sharing one's obsession with a wide audience is a tricky undertaking. Most of us will never share Duvall's fervor for the tango, the best he can hope for is our understanding his need to make the movie. And yes, the screenplay no doubt could have benefited from a co-writer not so attached to the material as Duvall. Regardless, Duvall's acting remains as smooth and effortless as the tango. ***

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