Thursday, March 05, 2009

Assassination Tango

Assassination TangoRobert Duvall writes, directs and stars in 2002's Assassination Tango, a movie about a seasoned hit man who is contracted to do a job in Argentina. John J. is an older man who lives in Atlantic City with his girlfriend and his girlfriend's daughter, Jenny, whom he loves like a father. He is also a contract killer. His agent, a salsa club owner named Frankie, informs him of a three-day job in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which will pay more than the usual hit. John J. agrees with the condition that he return in three days for Jenny's birthday, and flies Varig to Buenos Aires. He is met by a man named Miguel, who takes John J. to his home in the city, where his brother Orlando and his uncle and aunt have prepared a meal. Here, John J. learns that the man he is to kill is General Humberto Rojas, an ex-military leader who committed atrocious human rights crimes in the eighties and remains immune to prosecution. One of the victims of Rojas' crimes is a relative of Miguel and Orlando's family, and they cannot be at peace until he is killed. They have organized a hotel for John J. near Rojas' home, and the assassination is to be done from its rooftop into Rojas' yard, where Rojas takes tea every evening. John J.'s other contact in the city is Tony Manas, an exercise-club owner who will provide John J. with the necessary weapons for the job. While visiting Manas, John J. sees a couple dancing tango in the club. This sparks his fascination for this complex and elegant dance.

The next day, Orlando and Miguel have bad news for John J.: General Rojas has had an accident on his horse and must remain in the hospital for two to three weeks. John J. must stay there until Rojas returns to his house, where he can then kill him. John J. is very angry to be missing Jenny's birthday, but he must remain until the job is done. To kill time as he waits for Rojas' return, John J. wanders around Buenos Aires, taking in the city. He chances upon a tango club, where he is entranced by the dancing of a beautiful woman, Manuela. He watches her dance every evening for the next week, after which he approaches her and asks her to perhaps give him some tango lessons. She agrees. Meanwhile, he has been given a small gun by Tony Manas, but he requires a .22 with a scope if he is to do the assassination properly. He also spends a night with a prostitute, asking her to call him "Papito". He and Manuela spend a lot of time together, talking and dancing tango. He discovers the rich and mysterious world of the Argentine tango, and how much it means to the people of Buenos Aires, who dance it until they are very old. Without him knowing, Miguel and Orlando are watching his every move. But John J. is an experienced man, and has secretly taken an apartment nearby as a potential hiding place if things go wrong.

One morning, General Rojas finally returns home. John J. waits for the evening, when Rojas takes tea in his garden. Instead of sniping him from the hotel rooftop, John J. goes to his gate, kills his security guard, and stalks into the garden holding a bunch of flowers. Pretending to be a bum from the street, he shoots Rojas in the heart and then runs away. He then returns to his apartment and hides. That night, as he waits, safe, in the apartment, police search his hotel room. Miguel and Orlando are arrested, but their interrogation is interrupted by a contact of theirs in the Federal Police, who gets them off the hook. This man is also happy that Rojas is dead. It seems members of the police knew about the assassination from the very beginning, and let it happen; however, it becomes evident that John J. was supposed to have been captured. John J. must get out of Buenos Aires. He realizes that in his hotel room, he has forgotten a pair of riding boots that he bought for his stepdaughter Jenny. Risking his life, he returns to the police-protected hotel room to get the boots. He gets the boots and escapes within an inch of his life, running from police gunshots. The following morning, he takes a ferry to Uruguay, from which he is to fly home. In the airport bathroom, a man approaches him and asks to see his documents. John J. kills him and stuffs him in a stall. Then he boards his flight to Atlantic City, where he is happily reunited with his girlfriend and Jenny.

John J. has had a tough life living in the criminal world of Atlantic City, but he has softened in his old age. His love for his girlfriend and Jenny and the happiness he gets from having a family bring out a kind old man, but he also grapples with getting old and losing his place in the world, and shows an aggressive streak when people comment on his age. In Argentina, John J. comes to terms with this internal battle. Argentinian culture is one which prizes its older citizens and includes them in every aspect of life, unlike America, which is a culture of youth that marginalizes the old. The people he encounters in Argentina teach him that the old have an important place in their society: the hotel-owner cares for and loves his elderly mother; Manuela's elderly aunt and uncle are passionate and energetic people who dance vigorously; tango clubs are filled with elderly people who are often the best dancers in the club. Manuela, who is a beautiful woman in her early thirties, shows romantic interest in John J., despite the fact that he is much older than she is. For Manuela's elderly aunt, "Tango is everything. It is love, it is is life!". She is right; tango clubs are places where all ages are represented. Children, sexy young women, mysterious pony-tailed men, and older folks dance the tango. Argentina is a place where life is celebrated at every age. Argentina rejuvenates John J..

Not that the film doesn't show some negative aspects of Argentinian culture. Underlying many scenes is the unmistakable military presence characteristic of many Latin American cultures. The military is still very much an important force in Argentina. The atrocities committed by the military governments' wars of subversion in the seventies and eighties are not forgotten, nor have they been reconciled; Rojas is just one example of many military leaders who are known for their crimes but have gone unpunished. The people of Argentina are not free from these dictatorships as long as these men are alive and their "disappeared" family members are still unaccounted for. Another negative aspect shown is the level of corruption that pervades the judicial system. Miguel and Orlando's connections in the Federal Police make them immune to punishment for the crime they've committed. When John J. hears of their connection, he is surprised, but they tell him, "This is Argentina". The juxtaposition of the passionate, warm world of the tango and the hard, sharp-edged world of politics show the complex and multi-faceted nature of Argentinian culture.