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All Tangoed Up in Blue: Robert Duvall goes to Buenos Aires on a killing job in 'Assassination Tango.'

Down South

Robert Duvall divulges himself in vanity project 'Assassination Tango'

By Richard von Busack

ROBERT DUVALL has more than made his mark in cinema. Read the name, and you see the actor, memorable since he first stepped out of the shadows as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird 40 years ago. Everyone knows the scrappy intensity, the deep-set gaze that can show rattlesnake conviction, weasel cunning or apelike sorrow. How many times have we seen it onscreen, that noble bald pate, like George Washington profiled on a quarter? Still in fighting trim, though past age 70, Duvall promises more good work to come, and yet there's no way his self-directed film Assassination Tango can be described as worth seeing. As a Francis Ford Coppola-produced film for Duvall and his off-screen companion, Luciana Pedraza, this project swims with egotism.

Hit man John J. (Duvall) is sent on assignment from his native Brighton Beach to Buenos Aires by his boss. John, a dancer as well as a shootist, looks for the tango parlors, where he encounters the much-younger Manuela (Pedraza). Self-described as an emotionless killer who doesn't care about anything but the money, John finds himself drawn to the dance hall. The late nights almost cause him to slip up on the job.

It could be argued--it has been--that Assassination Tango is a throwback to '70s film. In those years, the art of acting became almost abstract against a thinly written background no more real than a painted wall. In films by Alan Rudolph and Bob Rafelson, actors are like jazz soloists, seeking out an emotional reality, freed from the workaday restrictions of a Hollywood plot. However, just as a rhythm section holds together a jazz combo, a basic plot ought to be sturdy enough to underpin these would-be acting tours de force. The film consists of a series of scenes of Duvall staring down his opponents, sitting around his hotel room, walking down the street or attending a tango concert. We get the picture: that this overstated dance of love and violence is supposed to mirror his own career as a hit man.

But even the slender plot is boggling: really, what is this New York hit man doing all the way down in Argentina, when the local talent could probably handle the job so much better? Considering how minimally this plot works, Duvall's John might as well be a salesman on vacation. There has to be more to this movie than the unbecoming vanity of an actor who wanted to make a movie in Buenos Aires. And the women in the audience aren't going to be nuts about the way he leaves his girlfriend (the great Kathy Baker, wasted in a tiny part) and her small daughter who idolizes him, betraying them without regret. The last straw is how one much-seasoned lady of tango, Maria Nieves, is given only a single scene to describe what the dance means to her. Nieves isn't a great actor like Duvall, but her simple integrity exposes the conceitedness of this awkward, nigh-unwatchable picture.

Assassination Tango (R; 113 min.), directed and written by Robert Duvall, photographed by Félix Monti and starring Duvall, Luciana Pedraza and Kathy Baker, opens Friday at the Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the April 17-23, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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