"What kind of shoes will you be wearing when your day comes?"
In August of 2011, Warner Bros. released four Sylvester Stallone action movies on Blu-ray, forcing me to question anew how studios make their decisions about these things. I also had to decide which of these four mediocre films to tackle first. I started with "The Specialist," skipped "Cobra" and "Demolition Man" temporarily, and moved on to "Assassins."
Remember: Stallone started his career effectively with the "Rocky" and "Rambo" pictures. Then he fell into decline with a string of inferior action flicks. After which he got into even more trouble trying to do comedy. Later, he redeemed himself by going back to his roots, making new, above-average "Rocky" and "Rambo" films and a silly but fun-filled "Expendables" with a whole flock of familiar action stars.
Nevertheless, there remained for me the matter of reviewing "Assassins," the 1995 film about rival hit men. So, why did I choose to watch "Assassins"? Mainly for its director, Richard Donner ("The Omen," "Superman," "Ladyhawke," "Lethal Weapon," "Conspiracy Theory") and the writers, Andy and Larry Wachowski ("The Matrix" series, "V for Vendetta") and Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential," "Mystic River," "Green Zone"). I figured there was hope here.
There wasn't. While the film shows promise at the beginning and fulfills some of that promise at the end, the whole middle section is harebrained and predictable. It's a typical DAM (dumb action movie).
Anyway, things begin in high fashion with a stylish black-and-white flashback, then a fairly subdued scene in a swamp, followed by a moderately exciting shoot-out in a cemetery. They help to establish the tone of the film and the personality of its main character, Robert Rath (Stallone). Rath, we learn, is Rocky in disguise. Well, not really, but metaphorically speaking. He's a tough guy, in this case a professional assassin with a heart of gold; he only kills bad guys and even at that, reluctantly, and he never, ever, harms a bystander. Naturally, he's the best hit man in the business. You can ask anybody. Ask the barber at the Carlton or the newsboy on the corner. Everyone will tell you, yeah, Rath is the best there is. Or so the story would have you believe. For a guy who supposedly works completely undercover, everybody seems to know him.
But here's the thing: Rath wants out. He's had it with killing. However, the money draws him back for a few last jobs. Which is where the first of the movie's co-stars comes in. Antonio Banderas plays a rival hit man, Miguel Bain, who is younger than Rath and thinks he's better than Rath. Indeed, for years Bain has studied Rath and idolized him. Now the young hot shot wants to take over Rath's number-one position as king of the hit men. Unfortunately, it's about here, where the main plot kicks in after the exposition, that the film starts to get really silly really fast, leaving all credibility behind. Not that we need much credibility in any action movie, but it helps at least a little bit to create a certain, small degree of believability in a story or its characters if we are to care about them.
Bain is good but he's sloppy, a show-off, and he has no conscience, something that irks Rath most of all. Bain is also something of a homicidal maniac who cares nothing about killing any innocent people who get in his way. So, Bain, in attempting to top Rath's exploits, starts trying to get to Rath's marks, his victims, before Rath does.
"Assassins" is one of those pictures where sheer luck and absolute coincidence play a big part in the proceedings. Exaggeration helps, too, like having most of the city's police force chasing Rath in patrol cars and helicopters and Rath getting away unseen and unharmed.
The main story thread follows Rath on a final assignment to kill a surveillance expert with stolen documents and four Dutch buyers who want to get their hands on them. The contract is worth $2,000,000 to Rath, a final way out. But, ah-ha, the surveillance expert is a beautiful woman named Electra (Julianne Moore), and could any Stallone character kill a beautiful woman when falling in love with her is so much more tempting? Besides, Bain is still dogging him everywhere he goes.
For once, the corny names make a little sense: Rath, Bain, Electra. The characters admit the names are aliases because they must, by design, work anonymously. OK, fair enough. Yet why not Smith, Jones, or Agnes? Why comic-book names? Oh, well....
"Assassins" becomes absurd pretty quickly, as I say. The further into the action we get, the more ludicrous things become (and the more bodies drop): Electra takes her cat with her on all her assignments. Characters get blown out of third-floor windows and easily survive. People jump from elevated monorails about 800 feet straight down without breaking a bone or getting so much as a scratch.
A saving grace is that an extended closing sequence is pretty tense, so the movie has a good pair of bookends to recommend it. It's that soft middle you gotta beware of.
Warner engineers transfer the movie to high-definition Blu-ray disc in its native aspect ratio, 1.85:1, using a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec. The best thing about the picture quality is the color, very bright and vivid, if a touch too dark in flesh tones. Object delineation and detailing are fine, though not extraordinary, and there is a small degree of roughness about the image. In a few scenes there is what appears to be a slight edge enhancement, nothing really; and a light, natural grain provides realistic texture.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound is the absolute best part of the show, providing a strong dynamic impact and a wide frequency range. The surrounds, too, supply a good deal of information in all the side and/or rear speakers, as evidenced from the very beginning with thunder overhead. Then we hear the noise of cars, rain, water, gunshots, and the like in an encircling environment. Combined with a clear, clean midrange, the dynamics and encompassing surround supply a satisfying aural effect.
We don't get a lot in the way of extras on the disc, mostly just language and subtitle selections: English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired. Beyond that, there are thirty-five scene selections and a widescreen theatrical trailer. The disc comes housed, as do most Blu-ray discs these days, in a flimsy BD Eco-case.
Even though "Assassins" is one of the better action films Stallone made during his middle period, that isn't saying much. Director Richard Donner handles the action sequences with style, creating at least a modicum of tension; it's just that there is so much totally dumb action in the film, it's hard to take any of it seriously, thus diminishing the excitement. As for the Wachowskis, who co-wrote it, it was their first effort, so they might have considered it a learning experience. They would get better. As for Helgeland, well, he too would improve.