Last Dance
Cutting rugs and splitting wigs
By Matt Mulcahey

That woman is his girlfriend in real life. Please believe it.

A social-security collecting Brooklyn hitman travels to Argentina for a job and falls in love with the tango.

Though that doesn’t exactly sound like the most inviting of premises, the problem with Assassination Tango, Robert Duvall’s directorial follow-up to 1997’s critically lauded The Apostle, is that there are too many intriguing storylines.

When he’s not murdering people for cash, Duvall (who also wrote and produced) is a devoted family man, longtime boyfriend to unsuspecting beautician Kathy Baker, and father figure to her young daughter. The aging but still lethal assassin is assigned the requisite “one last job,” which means rubbing out a tyrannical Argentinean general in Buenos Aires. But yet another plot thread unfolds when the hit is temporarily postponed.

While waiting for the target to resurface, Duvall becomes immersed in the vibrant Buenos Aires night life and the seductive world of the Argentinean tango, attracted first by a beautiful dancer (Duvall’s real-life romantic interest Luciana Pedraza), and then by the passion of the dance itself.

Though the casting of first-time actress Pedraza initially reeks of nepotism (something the film’s executive producer Francis Ford Coppola should know about, after his Sofia Coppola/Godfather III fiasco and Nicolas Cage’s still-baffling turn in Peggy Sue Got Married), Pedraza shows passable ability as an actress and handles the film’s many dance sequences smoothly. But the burgeoning romance between Pedraza and Duvall has no closure, and, despite the pair’s definite on-screen chemistry, the film diffuses the relationship and the sexual tension without resolution as the narrative creeps back to its standard thriller roots towards the finale.

As the aged hit man, Duvall plays his role to understated perfection, a reminder of why he ranks as one of cinema’s most accomplished character actors, and we could certainly use a little reminder after the stream of for-the-paycheck junk (The 6th Day, Gone in Sixty Seconds, John Q) Duvall has stooped to the last few years.

As a director Duvall again proves competent, energetically capturing the beauty and complexity of the tango, but it is in his role as writer that Duvall falters.

The many plot threads merely co-exist instead of intersecting, and the story never adequately deals with the duality of Duvall’s divergent roles as paid assassin and father and lover.

The lone connection between Duvall’s many lives is the relationship between the balletic movements of the tango and the ritualistic fluidity with which Duvall carries out his executions. In the end, that connection is not enough.

If you eliminate the hit man plot, the film is just as effective as the story of a family man who gets lost in the passion of the Argentinean tango and the arms of a younger woman. If the tango subplot is taken out, it’s an interesting character piece about a decent man with an indecent occupation.

But when both are shoved uncomfortably together, the result is an interesting but disjointed misfire that never seems to decide what sort of film it wants to be.