Monday, July 30, 2007


Assassins posterFor its tense and bloody finale, the Wachowskis’ Assassins takes us to Puerto Rico. Or rather, it takes us back: the film’s first few minutes, in grainy black and white, also take place in the Caribbean. And so the climax is at the same time a repetition: a return to history that is both the return of the repressed and an attempt to put an end to history.

As with all repetitions, however, what comes back is never exactly the same. In the interval, hired gun Robert Rath (played by Sylvester Stallone) has morphed from hitman to target or “mark”; taking his place fifteen years later at the other end of a telescopic sight is young buck Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas), who wants to prove that he is now number one in the world of assassins and that Rath is, as Bain puts it, “anticuado.”

Moreover, the final twist in the tale is the reappearance of the “mark” that Rath thought he had eliminated a decade and a half ago. But by killing him now, Rath can finally expunge the stain of (as he had thought) betraying his friend. For Rath is apparently a man of principles in this brutal world of contract murder, though these are suitably old-fashioned: he hesitates over killing women, children, and fellow chess-players.

The Spanish Caribbean is handy for a showdown for a number of reasons. First, the night before the final face-off can be the celebration of the Day of the Dead: the ceremony at the cemetery is a both picturesque and symbolic locale for yet another shoot-out. Second, the tropic heat provokes even the iciest of killers to lose his cool: Bain is bathed in sweat as he waits for the chance to take Rath out, and eventually storms into the bank where his target is taking his air-conditioned time. But third and most importantly, Puerto Rico is itself the site of history and the place to witness history’s effects. In this colonial city, the old endures, but it also shows its age.

So the first shot we’re shown of the island is of the crumbling but still imposing fortifications of Old San Juan, which mark a dramatic contrast from the Seattle Space Needle and monorail that had been the setting for much of the action hitherto. Then we find that the hotel in which Rath had stayed for the original hit is now a decayed ruin, an almost hollow shell home only to pigeons and dust. A taxi driver explains that it had been destroyed by fire, but nobody had the money to pull it down or build it back up.

In the mainland United States, all that is solid melts into air: targets are eliminated without too much rancor or regret; what counts is the contract, a mercantile exchange in which lives are reduced to mere numbers.

But Latin America’s colonial and neocolonial ruins hold the key to some other economy, some other relationship with temporality. Here, memory, shame, and honor are what matters. And it is only here that our protagonist has the chance to replay history, if only finally to eliminate the mark, and so the historical repressed, all the more effectively, and now in full color.

Stallone and Banderas in Assassins
YouTube link: the whole movie in under four minutes.

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