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'Assassination Tango'

Robert Duvall and Ruben Blades in "Assassination Tango."

Friday, May 09, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

The tango, one of the easiest and most graceful of dances, is much abused. The man steps to the side with his left foot, brings his right foot across in front, then straightens the right knee to snap the left foot and leg backward. Nine out of ten dancers count the last step of this sequence as the first step of the next, thus turning the tango into a fox-trot. This mistake is ruinous.

-- Louise Brooks

It takes two, be it Brando's last in Paris or Duvall's first in Buenos Aires, and no serious (let alone ruinous) mistakes are committed in the latter -- a perverse thriller and stunningly original character study called "Assassination Tango."

Writer, producer, director and star are all Robert Duvall, playing a long-in-the-tooth but ever-so-professional hit man, hired to murder a powerful Argentine general for reasons that are never quite clear or motivationally germane. Business is business: You do it, you get paid, you go home to your girlfriend (Kathy Baker) and her 2-year-old daughter -- the one you never had and much adore.

Never mind that, with his long gray ponytail and worn face, he looks desperately tired, one minute ranting and raving about his age, then declaring, "it doesn't pay to get excited" the next.


RATING: R for language and violence

STARRING: Robert Duvall, Lucian Pedraza, Kathy Baker

DIRECTOR: Robert Duvall


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Diffident about everything personal, he's the opposite about work. "If it's gone be done at all," he growls to seedy cohorts in a seedy hotel room, "it's gone be done right -- and my way."

But an unexpected delay forces our assassin to bide his time: three weeks to kill before the general. He makes the best of it by indulging his fascination with Argentina's tango culture in general and Manuela (Lucian Pedraza) in particular -- elegant practitioner of this passionate dance form, and his inspiration for the concentrated intensity required to learn it.

"Tango is life, love, hate, everything!" -- erotic to be sure, yet more sensual than sexual. He is captivated by its formality and ritualism, but even more by Manuela's incredibly gorgeous legs (the only rival to Leslie Caron's in "American in Paris").

"If I was a younger man, do you think I'd have a chance?" he asks her in sheepish adoration.

"You have it now," she replies with the world's most honest, least coquettish smile. "Welcome to Argentina, my friend."

Art imitates life: Duvall, now 72, has studied the tango and maintained a home in Argentina for 30 years. Pedraza is his real-life partner, with whom he has tangoed everywhere, including the White House in 1999.

The man's career, from Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) through "M*A*S*H" ('69), Coppola's "Godfathers," "Conversation" and "Apocalypse Now," "Great Santini" ('80), "Tender Mercies" ('83 Oscar winner) and "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway" ('93), represents an astonishing body of work. It was Coppola who encouraged him to direct "The Apostle" in 1996 and who suggested he make (and co-produced) "Tango."

Common denominator of them all is Duvall's truthfulness and uniquely naturalistic-realistic style of acting, characterized here by eccentric speech cadences and elliptical, often improvised dialogue. The miracle is that Pedraza -- who has never acted before -- matches his cool, understated restraint.

A wonderfully quirky script passes no judgments on the assassin or anybody else. Certain brilliant specialists do certain diversionary things, says Duvall. In the case at hand, it's "I'll kill you later -- I'm going to look into this tango thing first.'"

First, as well as last. Don't leave before the film's fab, final tango, mesmerizingly performed during its credits.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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