1995, Movie, R, 132 mins


Richard Donner's ASSASSINS takes that most venerable of Western conceits -- the aging gunman bedeviled by an itchy-fingered young acolyte who can only enter the pantheon by killing his idol -- and translates it into glossy contemporary terms. But Donner doesn't just adapt the parable, he guts it, tossing away the moral and emotional substance and concentrating on the shiny, soulless surface. ASSASSINS looks great -- especially the black-and-white opening sequence, all tricked out with portentous clocks and fluttering birds (Look, Ma: symbols!) -- but it's numbingly cold and pointless.

Robert Rath (Sylvester Stallone) is a contract killer, an assassin whose targets are drawn from the highest levels of evil-doing. No back-alley meetings or grubby small bills for Rath -- he does business via the electronic superhighway, making contact by fax modem and collecting his dirty money by wire transfer. He's the best -- we know because everyone keeps saying so -- but he's sick at heart. He wants to quit, so he jumps at the inevitable one last job, a $2 million hit in Seattle. The marks: four felonious Dutchmen and a mysterious woman who traffics in stolen computer information.

Enter Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas), a young pretender to the throne of blood who's as ruthless as Rath is principled. Of course, what passes for principle in ASSASSINS is that Rath won't fire randomly into a crowd for fear of killing innocent bystanders; Bain treats civilians as the next best thing to body armor. There's only room for one at the top, and the rivalry comes to a head when they're both sent to eliminate Electra (Julianne Moore), the dealer in purloined data, who's also a cat lover, surveillance whiz and expedient sexy babe: Without one of those around, after all, the latent homoeroticism in all that gun worship might drift a bit too close to the surface.

ASSASSINS, which clocks in at a bloated two-and-a-quarter hours, is filled with action -- gunplay, car chases, explosions and hand-to-hand mayhem. But there's precious little plot. The movie may have been designed as a character study, a meditation on the price of a life lived at the expense of others, except that the characters are hardly worthy of the name. It would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of screenwriters Andy and Larry Wachowski, whose background is in comic books. But it would be fairer to look to the movie's stars, and to the director who let them substitute posturing for performance.

Neither Banderas nor Stallone can be said to be acting, in any commonly understood sense of that term. Banderas's Bain is a bundle of psycho killer cliches: He twitches, he fidgets, he hisses, "Ay yi-yi-yi-yi-yi." It's not subtle, but you get the point: Don't touch him, he's a real live wire.

Stallone, however, is his usual stolid self -- a Stakhanovite sculpture on the move -- when what his character needs is some intimation of inner depth. Think Alain Delon in LE SAMOURAI, or even John Wayne in THE SHOOTIST. Stallone says the words -- he's tired of killing, haunted by the marks he's retired, quietly desperate and looking for a way out -- but they're just words, hollow and meaningless.

Julianne Moore, meanwhile, continues to be a cipher long after she's meant to be. Perhaps she's decided that a good man is so hard to find that it doesn't pay to sweat the small stuff -- like the fact that he's a remorseless murderer whose reformation is a little too recent to be entirely convincing.

Indeed, it's often hard to believe we're not meant to despise all three cardboard protagonists. It's bad enough that ASSASSINS has so little to say, but worse that it strikes an attitude of trendy amorality, like far too many slick thrillers of these post-Tarantino times. By comparison, those hoary Western sagas with their stern moral lessons look better and better. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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