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Should I Watch..? 'Assassins' (1995)

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Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

Assassins is an action thriller film released in 1995 and was directed by Richard Donner. Written by the Wachowskis (who would go on to make The Matrix) and Brian Helgeland, the film follows a hitman verging on retirement who struggles on his final assignment involving a mysterious computer hacker and a ruthless rival assassin. The film stars Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas and Julianne Moore. Donner insisted that the original script be rewritten and brought in Helgeland to do so, causing the Wachowskis to unsuccessfully attempt to have their names removed from the film's credits. The film was released to a mostly negative response from critics who called the film dull and confusing while Stallone's performance also earned him yet another Razzie nomination for Worst Actor (together with his performance in Judge Dredd). The film ended up earning a global total of $83.3 million, disappointing the studio as well as Donner who stood by the finished product in spite of the reviews.

Forgettable

What's it about?

Professional hitman Robert Rath is contemplating retirement while on assignment as he still feels remorse for killing his Russian mentor Nicolai some years earlier. Distracted by his guilt, he is astonished to find that another assassin beats him to the task by killing Rath's intended target. And that assassin is none other than Miguel Bain, a Latino killer who intends to supplant Rath's status as the best in the business by ultimately killing Rath. Unaware of who Bain works for, Rath's contractor offers him a highly lucrative job prospect: a computer hacker known only as Electra is in possession of a computer disc that they intend to sell to four Dutch buyers. Rath simply has to kill the lot of them and retrieve the disc.

But Electra is no fool and has established a complex network of CCTV cameras and remote operating systems to maintain their anonymity in the building where they are based. What makes things even more complicated is that Rath soon discovers that Bain is also on the same job and has already killed the four buyers who turn out to be Interpol agents. Suspecting that something is afoot, Rath must tread very carefully to survive what will be his final mission - one way or the other...

Trailer

What's to like?

On paper, this should have been an awesome film - Stallone was enjoying a mid-Nineties return to form in films like Cliffhanger and Demolition Man while Banderas was indeed the newcomer in action cinema with his blistering performance in Desperado. The Wachowskis were a couple of years away from revolutionising cinema with The Matrix while Donner was already a veteran of action cinema with his highly successful Lethal Weapon series. But sadly, the stars weren't aligned for this film although Banderas does his career a world of good here, even if he is essentially playing an evil version of El Mariachi minus his guitar-case full of guns.

The action within the film is solid if unspectacular and the film even tries to offer up an element of mystery as Rath ponders who it is who is turning his employers against him. But the simple truth is that the film just doesn't work. Despite the lovely locations, sweltering sense of heat that comes through the screen and the always dependable Moore (being criminally underused, in my opinion), the film can't engage with audiences the way that some of Stallone's earlier action outings can. It's as though everyone is just playing it safe to deliver an action film that is happy being adequate, which is a shame considering the talent involved.

Stallone is disappointing by his usual standards, barely displaying any emotion in the film. He's also a hard character for viewers to get behind.

Stallone is disappointing by his usual standards, barely displaying any emotion in the film. He's also a hard character for viewers to get behind.

Fun Facts

  • Donner insisted that he was still proud of the film, despite its underperformance at the box office. "Warners have been really good to us and gave us money to make that movie" he later said. "And I thought we did a good job and they thought we did a good job, but the audiences and critics didn't like it. Did I feel bad? Sure. Did it get me down? Nope, nope, nope — too lucky to be in this business to be down in the dumps." He also suggested that the film might have worked better if Stallone and Banderas had swapped roles.
  • Michael Douglas, Mel Gibson, Stallone's long-time friend and rival Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Sean Connery were considered for the role of Rath at one point. But Stallone got the part and was paid $15 million - roughly 30% of the film's entire budget!
  • Like many of Donner's films, the movie contains plenty of political statements in the background such as the buses with anti-NRA slogans on them, a sign in front of a pet store encouraging customers to adopt rather than purchase an animal and a woman in a cafe wearing a Pro-Choice t-shirt.
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What's not to like?

Let's deal with the elephant in the room first, ok? Stallone is playing a professional killer - a man who happily commits murder in exchange for money - and we're supposed to root for him? Really? His monotonous delivery and utter lack of emotional display gives the impression of an automaton at work, making the character even harder for audiences to get behind. By contrast, Banderas is wide-eyed and exciting to watch and even though he's clearly the bad guy, his character is far more appealing even if he wasn't using his Latino accent and inherently smouldering looks. Moore, for all her skills as an actress, also feels underwritten and underdeveloped as a character, strangely roped into this dick-waving contest between two hitmen and ultimately serves little to no purpose. There isn't even a hint of a romance between her and Rath but considering how well that went down between Stallone and his co-star in The Specialist - Sharon Stone - then that's probably a good thing.

The film's techno aspects have dated horribly with the all-important disc being a humble floppy (remember those?) and nothing really convincing sticks. The film's running time is far too long for what should be a simple action flick like this but the plot demands much explanation which we sadly don't get. The narrative isn't strong enough to demand our attention and the action scenes feel generic and uninspired, despite their technical competence. Assassins should have been a dark and gripping thriller but instead, it feels devoid of any original ideas and stuffed full of cliché. I'm delighted that the Wachowskis moved on from this to develop their pioneering technical masterpiece The Matrix but it's hard to reconcile that movie's premise with this one. It's like going to a nice restaurant that specialises in fancy Asian cuisine and getting an everyday chow mein instead - disappointing and not what you'd fully expect.

Moore is underused and feels out of place amid the bullets and machismo flying around the place.

Moore is underused and feels out of place amid the bullets and machismo flying around the place.

Should I watch it?

Assassins is one film that is probably best suited to Stallone's long-suffering fans who have had to put up with a lot over the years. The film doesn't plummet to the depths familiar to those fans but it doesn't do much to stand out either. Technically competent and exciting if you're in the mood, the film commits the ultimate crime of being forgettable and boring for an action film. It offers little that viewers haven't seen elsewhere and it's hard to feel disappointed with so much talent involved in the film's creation. It should have been perfect but instead, it's little more than "meh".

Great For: undemanding action fans, giving the Wachowskis a boost in the film industry, anyone who loves hearing silenced firearms

Not So Great For: lasting longer than a fart in most people's memory, meeting people's expectations, viewers not paying attention

What else should I watch?

Everyone involved has had some truly classic outings on the big screen, most of which I've already mentioned. Donner enjoyed tremendous success with the first great superhero film with 1978's Superman, one of the all-time great horror films in The Omen and The Goonies, a family adventure film that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anything Steven Spielberg can conjure up. The Wachowskis have now become some of the most innovative minds in Hollywood, starting off with the classy Bound and graduating onto the epic sci-fi Cloud Atlas. Stallone, of course, is still the star of films like Rocky and the Rambo series with the tense First Blood still being the best of the lot. And Banderas is just as adapt in dramatic roles as he is in action pics, appearing in The Skin I Live In just as easily as he returned to his most famous role of El Mariachi in Once Upon A Time In Mexico. And Moore has five Oscar nominations to her name before finally picking up the win with her performance in Still Alice, to say nothing of her work in films before then like Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski.

All of this makes Assassins such the disappointment that it is. Everyone involved is capable of delivering great work but none of them do with this film. What a pity.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Sylvester Stallone

Robert Rath

Antonio Banderas

Miguel Bain

Julianne Moore

Electra

Anatoly Davydov

Nicolai Tashlinkov

Muse Watson

Ketcham

Steve Kahan

Alan Branch

Technical Info

*story by the Wachowskis

DirectorRichard Donner

Screenplay

The Wachowskis & Brian Helgeland*

Running Time

133 minutes

Release Date (UK)

6th October, 1995

Rating

15

Genre

Action, Crime, Thriller

Razzie Award Nomination

Worst Actor (Stallone)

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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