Tomboy (AKA The Assignment) (2016 / 2017 wide release) [IMDB}
Directed by Walter Hill
Starring Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Caitlin Gerard
Walter Hill's controversial sex change revenge thriller has a strong concept and some good performances. But hamstrung by his own very poor script and a tiny $5 million budget, the genre veteran turns in a muddled, often boring mess.
It's fair to say that Tomboy has had a troubled history. Based on a 1978 script that Hill had optioned and abandoned once before, the film has gone through numerous changes of title and a very poorly received premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016. Even before shooting began it was dogged with controversy because of its gender reassignment premise, and in the UK it's been released direct-to-video - and not even on Blu-Ray, at that. The film's single biggest problem, however, is simple: it's bad.
To be sure, Tomboy has an extremely intriguing - if risky and expectedly controversial - premise. Michelle Rodriguez plays Frank Kitchen, an experienced but inexpensive hitman on the bottom rung of the criminal ladder. In San Francisco for a hit, Frank is betrayed by local gangster "Honest" John (Anthony LaPaglia) and handed over to unhinged surgeon Dr. Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver). Because Frank killed her brother, Jane imposes on him an unwanted gender reassignment operation - partly as revenge, and partly as a bizarre psychosocial experiment. Waking up a man in a woman's body, Frank sets out for revenge of his own.
Hill has said that he felt the concept in Hamill's script lent itself to an entertaining B-movie. The director's instincts are probably right, and this film is definitely unique and intriguing. However, the budget of $5 million is clearly several times too small to do the idea justice. The extreme financial constraints are evident in every aspect of the film, which has a cheap TV look and has too many talky scenes. Everything here is at DTV level, and there's next to none of Hill's usual flair. Worse still, the few action scenes are flat and unexciting. The simple fact is that strong action - usually one of Hill's strengths - takes time and money, and the director did not have anywhere near enough of either.
What is much harder to understand is how badly written the film is. Tomboy has many of the hallmarks expected of a DTV action film starring someone like Van Damme or Seagal - it's excessively talky, overcomplicates a simple premise, skips in time without good reason and features numerous pointless on-screen captions. Given Hill's background as a highly successful writer with a terse, almost minimalist style it's almost hard to believe he co-wrote this film. It's sadly hard to overstate how leaden and verbose the script is. Much of the worst dialogue is reserved for Sigourney Weaver, who spends much of the film in a strait-jacket being interviewed post-arrest by Dr, Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub). Weaver seems to relish the chance to monologue, irrespective of the rubbish she is made to say.
In addition to the concept, there are other reasons to wish that Hill had far more money and a much better script to play with here. Michelle Rodriguez is remarkably brave and committed in her performance, and it sometimes works beautifully. She plays Frank's initial realisation of what has happened to him superbly, and has some interesting interactions with a desperate nurse, Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard). Rodriguez was keen to take on the role due to feeling under-utilised and typecast, and her performance here is further evidence that she deserves more opportunities to broaden her range.
Tomboy is in many ways a fascinating film. Given far more funds to work with and a radically overhauled script, Hill might just have been able to make something worthwhile from this unique idea. As it is, this deeply compromised effort will only be of interest to the director' most committed fans.