Produced and directed by Richard Donnor and kinda-sorta based off of a script by the Wachowski Brothers, Assassins didn't exactly set the box office on fire when it hit theaters, but a few of us remember fondly seeing the film up there on the big screen at our local theater. On paper this must have seemed like a sure fire hit. Sylvester Stallone was still a box office draw at this point in his career and Antonio Banderas was starting to approach superstar status as well but for whatever reason the movie just didn't connect with audiences the way that the producers no doubt hoped that it would. It's a shame, really, as it's a fun movie.
The story follows a hitman named Robert Rath (Stallone) who, despite the fact that he's widely regarded as the best in the business, is growing tired of his career and his latest contract, which asks him to take out a fellow hitman named Ketchum (Muse Watson) is just the icing on the cake. In short, he's over it. Done with it. He wants to move on and do something else with his life before he's too old to make that happen and inevitably winds up in the same place as Muse, wasted and forgotten about.
Rath's next assignment lines up his target for him, a filthy rich businessman who is to be taken out while attending his brother's funeral. Rath shows up for the job as planned but is understandably surprised when his target is killed by the bullet of another man, an up and coming hitman named Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas) who aims, no pun intended, to take Rath's spot at the top of the hitman ladder. If taking Rath's target wasn't bad enough, he also manages to kill four cops in the process which brings undue attention down on both men, something Bain seems to enjoy and which Rath absolutely doesn't want. The differences between these two men and their methods are made very clear, in fact they couldn't be more obvious. When Rath takes that one last job, the one with a two million dollar pay day, he's hoping he can finally retire when he finishes it but winds up involved with a hacker named Electra (Julianne Moore) and dealing with Miguel once again as a job from his past comes back to haunt him and he and Miguel wind up chasing one another from Seattle to the Caribbean.
While Assassins starts off with a bang as most typical action movies do, it builds very quickly for the first half of its running time only to slow things down considerably in the last half. While to some this might be a detriment, it's actually rather interesting the way Richard Donnor pulls this off, changing tone when you don't expect and taking a fairly standard shoot'em up and turning it into a chess game between two very talented players, an allegory used very effectively in the movie itself. Performance wise, Stallone is very good here, using his age against Banderas to come off as the more mature player in this game and demonstrating the kind of patience that we know will pay off for him in the end. Banderas, on the other hand, plays the rash and all too eager upstart just as effectively. He's always done well in showy roles, playing macho guys with no shortage of self confidence rather well (the Mariachi Trilogy being the best possible example) and he brings that confidence to the part of Miguel and the movie is all the better for it. Banderas takes the physical side of the role very seriously too, not just strutting his way through the picture as you might expect but giving his character some interesting body language too let us know that he may, every once in a while, wonder if he's bitten off more than he can chew by taking on Stallone's older and wiser killer. Moore plays the hacker character well, showing the antisocial behavior your might expect from someone in that occupation and letting her character's odd relationship with Rath develop naturally and not cramming it down our throats the way so many Hollywood pictures tend to do. She's good here, as you'd expect given her talents, but the movie really belongs to Stallone and Banderas.
Ultimately, Assassins may not deliver the wall to wall action that some fans probably wanted out of the movie but it's a fun picture with some great performances, nice location photograph that takes us from the Pacific Northwest to the islands, and some slick visuals and clever editing. It may not always deal so much in realism or believability but it delivers some memorable set pieces and some solid tension and, if nothing else, it's consistently entertaining.
Assassins debuts on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1.781 widescreen 1080p high definition transfer that stomps all over the DVD release in terms of enhanced clarity and improved detail and texture. Close up shots show off every nook and cranny in the faces of the cast while medium shots show great texture in clothing and long distance shots let us take in the backgrounds and scenery in ways that just weren't possible on standard definition. Colors look nice and natural and black levels are strong throughout the film. The film's grain structure is left intact and there are no problems with noise reduction issues or heavy filtering, nor are there any problems with edge enhancement or mpeg compression artifacts. Some scenes do show some slight aliasing and a few shots look softer than others but overall fans should be pretty happy with the way that this movie looks on Blu-ray.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix on this disc is solid but it doesn't provide the bombastic listening experience you might expect it to. The gunshots in this film are often quiet, which makes sense in the context of the story, but there's a good bit of background detail and ambient noise to take in when the rear channels spring to life in certain scenes. The score is spread out nicely through each part of the 5.1 set up and bass response, while never overpowering, is pretty solid even if it isn't as frequent as you might think it should be. Dialogue is always clear and the levels are definitely balanced properly here.
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound tracks are provided in French, Spanish, German, Italian and in Dolby Digital 2.0 in Portuguese and Spanish. Subtitles are available in English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian and last but not least, Swedish.
Aside from some simple menus and chapter selection, there are no extra features at all on this release aside from the film's original theatrical trailer which is presented in standard definition.
The lack of any substantial extras stings a little bit but you can't really fault Warner's transfer or their audio mix, both are quite good and considerably better than the previous DVD release. As to the movie itself, it's slick, classy and periodically very exciting. The three lead performances are a lot of fun and if the movie isn't always moving at a mile a minute, it's hard not to have a good time with this one. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.