Grade: D

What is it with filmmakers who become fascinated by the tango? In their obsession for the dance they toss aside all reason and insist on constructing elaborate cinematic panegyrics to their terpsichorean avocation. Sally Potter did it back in 1997 with “The Tango Lesson,” and now Robert Duvall makes a fool of himself with “Assassination Tango,” a picture that’s about as bad as “The Apostle,” his previous auteur effort, was splendid. Haphazardly constructed and featuring dialogue that sounds poorly improvised–as well as a central character who’s less a human being than a collection of clichés–it comes across as a misguided vanity project of the sort that actors in search of colorful parts often create for themselves. And when it offers up observations like “Tango is life–tango is love–tango is hate–tango is everything,” and apparently intends us to take them seriously, the movie becomes simply absurd.

Duvall stars as John J. Anderson, a grizzled but purportedly ace hit-man who’s inked by his boss Frankie (Frank Gio), the proprietor of the dance club where John hangs out, to ice an Argentinian general in Buenos Aires. John is reluctant to take the trip, since he’s afraid of missing the upcoming birthday celebration for sweet little Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller), the daughter of Maggie (Kathy Baker), his adoring girlfriend. But he allows himself to be persuaded, and soon finds himself in South America conferring with his none-too-bright contacts Orlando (Julio Oscar Mechoso) and Miguel (Ruben Blades). Unfortunately complications arise which force him to postpone the hit and remain in Argentina longer than expected, and he takes the opportunity to visit a local club, where he becomes entranced with the tango, especially as performed by the luscious Manuela (Luciana Pedraza). Before long the whole assassination aspect of the narrative is temporarily shelved as John and Manuela flirt and dance; the latter sequences have some energy and considerable style, but the quasi-romantic scenes fall flat–the result of the drab dialogue, Pedraza’s stilted delivery and Duvall’s attempt to make up for it by overdoing the crotchety, cantankerous shtick something fierce. Eventually, however, the murder plot kicks in again–albeit with numerous last-minute twists and reversals. Some political machinations occur in the final act, suggesting that the assassination might have had an official sanction, but they’re far too obscurely presented to be comprehensible.

The point of this laborious exercise will escape most viewers. Turgid and self-indulgent, “Assassination Tango” seems to have no other raison d’être but to permit its star to mug ferociously and enjoy a few dance steps with an attractive partner. But while Duvall might be enjoying himself, his audience certainly won’t. A simple request: in the future, when filmmakers find themselves fascinated by the tango, would they please have the common courtesy to indulge their obsession in a more private forum than on the screen?