Produced by American Zoetrope and Butchers’ Run Films
Written and directed by Robert Duvall
Distributed by MGM and United Artists
Produced by Fox 2000 Pictures
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Screenplay by Larry Cohen
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Are good hitmen really hard to find? Not if you go to the movies. There, you’ll discover professional killers are among our noblest citizens. They are invariably sensitive to the pitiable weaknesses of human nature and are ever striving to correct them, whether it’s with a few thoughtful words concerning our common mortality or, more simply, a quick, efficient rubout.
Generally speaking, your self-respecting hitman either holds an advanced degree in moral philosophy or is taking night classes toward one. Whenever he comes upon a defenseless woman or child, he never fails to step in and do all he can to ensure a sunnier future for such unfortunates. And God help anyone who gets in the way of his benevolence. If you’ve not found a genuine hitman yet, don’t worry. You’ll know him on sight. He’ll look like Michael Caine, Robert De Niro, John Cusack, or Robert Duvall—flinty-faced but really charming.
Two recent films, Assassination Tango and Phone Booth, play with this hitman conceit and, improbably enough, make it genuinely entertaining.
Written and directed by Robert Duvall, Assassination Tango comes perilously close to being a vanity project. Duvall plays a noble hitman who takes time out on a mission to romance Manuela (Argentinian actress Luciana Pedraza), a woman 40 years younger than his 72-year-old self. Since Pedraza is Duvall’s off-screen girlfriend, this cannot help but seem like rank exhibitionism. Duvall gets away with it, however, by making fun of both himself and the gangster formula he is reworking. What’s more, he and Pedraza, however mismatched, do make a charming couple as they roam the streets and cafés of Buenos Aires, accompanied at every step by an unreservedly romantic tango beat.
Duvall plays John Anderson, an aging Brooklyn gangster who’s trying to make some sense of his vicious life before the Eternal Hitman takes him out. He has even assumed the responsibility of a ready-made family, marrying Maggie (Kathy Baker) and becoming a stepfather to her ten-year-old daughter (Katherine Micheaux Miller). Thoroughly enchanted by the girl, he dotes on her tirelessly, walking her to school and overseeing her riding lessons at a local equestrian club. “As long as I know you,” he tells the appreciative but puzzled child, “you’re safe. I got you under my wing.” Maggie, who knows nothing about his profession, adores him for his tenderness to herself and her daughter. He’s obviously in love with what he conceives to be their innocence. In several scenes, we see him gingerly shepherding them into the back door of his modest house, looking furtively over his shoulder time and again. Clearly, he expects someone to intrude on his dream of virtuous domesticity. He seems to believe that, by protecting them, he will restore some decency and virtue to his own life. This, of course, does not mean that he is ready to give up his day job. Anderson takes pride in knowing how to kill quickly and efficiently—so efficiently that you will not see his first “hit” coming, or even happening. This is a man who knows his craft, and being elusive is rule number one.
This is why his boss gives him a big job in Buenos Aires: Only the best will do. This raises a question: Why would the best in this precarious profession be a septuagenarian? Duvall does not help matters by including so many staircase scenes. He is fine going up; however, coming down, he never once lets go of the railing. Anyone over 50 knows all about this. Knee joints are among our first, painful reminders of mortality. Then again, maybe this is Duvall’s point: a visual refrain displaying the depredations of age and the reflections they occasion in the no-longer-fleet of foot.
Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, Anderson discovers his target is a retired general who had been a member of Leopoldo Galtieri’s military junta 20 years earlier. An aging couple want revenge against this officially untouchable muckety-muck. They hold him responsible for their son’s death in one of the infamous “disappearances” during the junta’s rule. Noting that there are two sides to every story, Anderson declares himself ideologically disinterested. “My politics is money on the table,” he stoutly asserts. Yet we cannot help recalling his determination to protect his stepdaughter. Can’t he see the parental parallel? How disinterested would he be if he were assigned to hit some of the general’s enemies, such as these suffering parents?
Complications arise, as they always do in such films, and what was to be a three-day job stretches into as many weeks. With time on his hands, Anderson explores Buenos Aires and meets a cabaret dancer who teaches the tango by day. They begin a relationship much like the tango itself, a blend of the formal and erotic. On their first chance encounter at a local café, he asks her to dance. She smiles invitingly but declines, telling him, “You go too fast, señor!” This is enough to bewitch him. Clearly, Anderson can resist everything but virtue. There-after, as they meet day by day, she introduces him to her sister and her two-year-old daughter, the issue of a failed marriage, and then her aunt and uncle. When they are alone, John asks her shyly whether he would have a chance with her if he were younger. For the first time, she laughs out loud. “You have it now, señor.” Surprised to befuddlement, he mumbles her words to himself as if to make sure he heard correctly, and she laughs again. “Welcome to Argentina, my friend!” It’s a delightful, apparently improvised moment. We seem to be eavesdropping on the actors’ budding relationship.
It is almost a disappointment when the film returns to its assassination plot, but not for long. Duvall handles the conventional proceedings with efficiency and suspense. We get what we thought we were paying for in the first place and quite a bit more as we realize that we have been witnessing a double plot in which Anderson dances a tango between his ruthless and honorable selves.
You will get your money’s worth at Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth also, a variation on the hitman plot. I have panned Schumacher’s work in the past; this, how-ever, is impressive filmmaking.
As though they were constructing a sonnet, Schumacher and screenwriter Larry Cohen have imposed daunting limits on themselves. They tell their story and convey their themes within a scant 81 real-time minutes, riveting their focus to a Bell Atlantic phone booth on 53rd Street in Manhattan, making it the still center of what quickly becomes a wildly hectic ten-yard circumference. To give us information beyond this chosen circle, Schumacher uses split screens and picture-within-picture insets. The effect is reminiscent of the proliferation of mirroring images in a well-composed lyric.
The film opens with obnoxious Stuart Shepard (Colin Farrell) strutting down Broadway, conducting his public-relations business via two cell phones. Alternately wheedling and barking, he manipulates an assortment of small-time clients, gossip columnists, and fame-game magazine editors. Having created a flurry of wholly fabricated excitement among all these parties, he goes to the phone booth, the old-fashioned kind with folding doors, which no longer exist anywhere in the city. This is one of the film’s several technical but thematically necessary implausibilities. Stuart has been using this phone daily for several weeks to cultivate Pam (Katie Holmes), an aspiring young actress. Promising her fame, he explains how he intends to showcase her talent and beauty. In his hands, she will be noticed by all the right agents and producers. Why does he use a pay phone rather than his cell to deliver this malarkey? Because the calls are not, shall we say, disinterested, and he doesn’t want them showing up on his monthly bill. His devoted wife might grasp their as-yet-unacknowledged purpose.
Having given Pam her daily dose of flattery, he hangs up. Then, before he can leave the booth, the phone inexplicably rings. He automatically picks it up to hear an archly sinister voice (Kiefer Sutherland’s) observing that “a ringing phone has to be answered.” Then, after demonstrating he knows all about Stuart’s life, including his adulterous intentions, the caller identifies himself as the sniper who has been shooting people in the street to newsworthy effect. The police, he chortles, have assumed the killings were random. Not so. With obvious relish, he explains that he chose one victim because he was a child pornographer and another because he was a CEO who profited grandly by selling out his employees and shareholders Enron-style.
Now he has drawn a bead on Stuart. He orders him to stay in the booth and not hang up. Equipped with a laser targeting beam, his rifle places a telltale red dot right over the publicist’s cold heart. When Stuart asks, “Why me?” Sutherland gloats marvelously. Stuart must pay for two sins, he explains: using people and betraying his wife—if not yet in deed, then certainly in his now-targeted heart.
Things heat up when Stuart’s extended phone conversation arouses the ire of some streetwalkers who rely on this booth to carry on their tawdry business. In the resulting hubbub, the sniper shoots a man who comes too close to his prey. The police swarm in along with the broadcast media, all assuming Stuart is the shooter. In no time at all, Stuart can see his multiplied image on televisions in a nearby appliance store. Then, his wife and Pam rush to the scene, and the real fun begins. Trapped in the phone booth, he has become his own reluctant publicist, displaying himself for all to see.
Some critics have faulted Phone Booth for its implausibilities. For instance, there are no phone booths sporting doors on West 53rd Street. What’s more, streetwalkers haven’t hustled so flagrantly in midtown Manhattan since the 80’s. But to say the film is unrealistic makes about as much sense as faulting a sonnet for not sounding like natural conversation. The film is a stylized study of intimacy and trust betrayed. Above all, it is a controlled meditation on what it means to be honest, especially with yourself. We do not ask of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 whether love is really like the pole star “to every wand’-ring bark.” We understand the metaphoric point. Here, too, it is not a matter of whether an anonymous sniper would take an interest in the immorality of a stranger, especially such an ordinary sinner as Stuart. The killer is analogous to the old radio hero, the invisible Shadow. He is the voice of conscience made overpowering by the imminence of death, a hitman emerging from the recesses of the guilty mind.
No less a writer than Flannery O’Connor used a variation of the hitman conceit in her famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” She invented a highly improbable murderer to foreshorten moral and religious issues until they gained fatal intensity. Compared to O’Connor’s astringent brew, Phone Booth may be weak tea. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see a popular entertainment that aspires to be as thoroughly discomfiting to our moral complacency. And then there are the performances. Farrell’s utterly convincing emotional meltdown from cock of the walk to whimpering child consolidates his position as the real thing in film today. The unseen Sutherland is equally effective. He should be tapped for a revival of The Shadow. His bone-freezing voice not only succeeds in unravelling Stuart, it thoroughly unnerves the audience as well.