Producers: Najeeb Khuda, Gavin Lurie, Joel Shapiro, Jeff Elliott, Alex Eckert and Thomas Sjolund Director: Jesse Atlas Screenplay: Aaron Wolfe and Jesse Atlas Cast: Andy Allo, Nomzamo Mbatha, Dominic Purcell, Mustafa Shakir, Fernanda Andrade, Bruce Willis and Barry Jay Minoff Distributor: Saban Films
This is a dispiriting film, not only because it’s bad (though it is), but because it’s the last made by Bruce Willis before failing mental health forced his retirement, and as such represents a sad close to a long career as a genuine movie star if not a great actor. Of course, it’s only one of many low-budget potboilers the actor made in the last several years of his working life, and while not the worst of them, that’s not saying much.
The screenplay begins with a premise that, if handled imaginatively, might have led to a decent film, even if it’s hardly new. (In fact, it’s an expansion of a 2017 short film also written by Aaron Wolfe and Jesse Atlas, directed like this one by Atlas.) And Atlas and Wolfe obviously want to say something serious about identity and the dangers of technology. But a muddled narrative and slipshod execution undermines their best intentions.
Rather than place one of their operatives in danger by having the agent kill a target directly, a secretive special ops squad headed by gruff, mysterious Valmora (Willis)—who works with more sympathetic assistant Olivia (Fernanda Andrade) and a brusque tech expert named Marko (Barry Jay Minoff)—implant a device that looks like a mechanical worm into the brain of a person with access to their intended victim. Then the psyche of an agent is implanted into the unwitting person through the device; the individual is then used as a tool by the agent to commit the desired murder, taking the fall for it while the agent’s consciousness is returned to its original body. Valmora describes the procedure, not too accurately, as the next stage of drone warfare, and a prologue shows it in practice, when a father suddenly turns on his fugitive son and kills him.
An American soldier named Alexa (Nomzamo Mbatha) is dragged into the operation after her husband Sebastian (Mustafa Shakir), a drone pilot, returns from a mission in a coma. Actually he was one of Valmora’s agents, put into his unconscious state by Adrian (Dominic Purcell), a villain who killed Sebastian’s host and retrieved the device from it, thus getting ahold of the technology behind the process. Alexa is persuaded to become a new agent tasked with making contact with Adrian to retrieve the device and then kill him, saving Sebastian in the process. To do so she’ll inhabit various bodies to eliminate Adrian’s underlings, and then Mali (Andy Allo), an artist whose works Adrian is offering to purchase, to get to him personally.
As this mayhem progresses, Adrian grows interested in Mali as well as her artwork, and she comes to wonder whether he’s the villain Valmora contends, especially since his manner is curiously mild for a man of such powerful physique. Valmora, however, contends that Adrian is using the technology to take over members of his outfit and target him. The plot grows more and more confused, eventually becoming borderline incomprehensible, something not helped by Bryan Koss’s woozy camerawork and editor Philip Harrison’s desperate attempt to keep things remotely coherent. Alexa does, however, manage a reunion of sorts with Sebastian, though not a particularly satisfying one, leading to a saccharine postscript smothered in the mournful strains of Mark Tewarson’s keyboard-and-strings score.
Apart from its logical lapses and structural problems, “Assassin” suffers from an ultra-low budget. The depiction of the futuristic technology is laughably chintzy: the wormlike device looks, in its brief appearance, like a wiggling piece of costume jewelry, and Alexa prepares for the consciousness-transfer by putting on a wetsuit and getting into a bathtub filled with ice cubes while Marko fiddles with a laptop to initiate the process and Olivia presses a button on what appears to be a fan. It doesn’t help that the whole business is conducted in what seems to be a deserted, decaying stone warehouse. The result looks like something film students might have thrown together in a garage. The other locations are more suitable, but overall Alec Contestable’s production design is at best adequate.
As to the acting, it ranges from somnolent (Purcell) to overexcited (Mbatha), with most of the performances in the pallid middle. As for Willis, his lack of expression isn’t surprising—it’s always been a feature of his work—but it appears that his dialogue was shot in short clips that were then edited together as needed to provide a semblance of continuity. Especially knowing what we now do about his health, it’s disheartening that such a murky, cheesy piece represents the swan song for the man who embodied action heroes like John McClane and made first-rate contributions to films like “The Sixth Sense” and “Moonrise Kingdom.”