Written and directed by Walter Hill, Tomboy (aka The Assignment) feels like a remake of his own Johnny Handsome gene-spliced with Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In. It’s built around great work from Michelle Rodriguez as a bearded, macho hit-man who wakes up transformed into a woman. Spooky mad surgeon Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver) is responsible, and the film is oddly told via flashbacks as she is interviewed (by Tony Shalhoub) in an asylum – so we spend more time on why the loon did it than on the more interesting stuff of the sex-changed guy struggling with a new female identity while carrying on a vengeance crusade.
For a film with such a wind premise, it’s a bit timid. Early on, technically accomplished nude and sex scenes feature the male ‘Frank Kitchen’ (not exactly an intimidating tough guy name) and Rodriguez’s self-examination when waking up with no dick (or beard) in a grubby bath-robe is staged very like the post-transformation scene of Hammer’s Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. It spends a lot of time on Weaver in a strait-jacket or mittens wittering on like a mad auntie version of Hannibal Lecter, with the nature of the revenge taken on her held back until the last moment. When at large as a super-villain, Dr Kay dresses in male suits and has slicked-back hair to suggest she’s scrambled her own gender identity before she sets out to do the same to Frank, who crossed her by innocently taking the job of assassinating her deadbeat loser brother (Adrian Hough). What we see of him in a brief scene suggests he’s no great loss.
As a woman, Frank lurches around low-rent dives and takes a baseball bat to a sleaze who sexually harasses her. She stumbles into a relationship with a pre-op barroom pickup named Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), who turns out to be mixed up in the plot against him but seems not to mind that much what sex her lover is. Neither version of Frank does anything much to inspire love or loyalty, though girl Frank does develop a potentially redemptive relationship with a rescued fighting dog that has to be explained in voice-over rather than illustrated in a scene or two.
Hill first scripted this as a comic book (out now from Titan, whose excellent taste extends to commissioning an Anno Dracula comic from me), and this uses fade-to-cartoon transitions and other Sin City-ish devices. While it’s psychologically credible that the unwilling transgender protagonist would go for baseball caps and down-at-heel guy clothes, the film misses a trick by not following the comic book more by having Frank dress up glamorously and using newfound sexual allure on the goonish guys (the likes of Anthony LaPaglia and Ken Kirzinger) she has to kill to get to the Doctor. In the finale, however, she does distract them a bit with a black bustier and seemingly uses her new vagina to conceal her holdaway gun.
As in Bullet in the Head, Hill plays point and shoot a lot – but it’s hard not to miss the muscular distinction of his vintage works, by which I don’t even mean classics like The Driver, The Warriors and Southern Comfort but amiable hardboiled schlock like The Long Riders, Last Man Standing, Extreme Prejudice, Red Heat and – indeed – Johnny Handsome (the one where Elephant Mannish Mickey Rourke has plastic surgery to look normal – well, like late ‘80s Mickey Rourke – and avenges himself on Ellen Barkin and Lance Henriksen). It is nice to hear a Ry Cooder score on a Hill film again. NB: Hill bought Denis Hamil’s script Tom Boy in 1978 and has toyed with it over the years – Hamil’s plot sounds much closer to The Skin I Live In, which was based on a 2011 French novel by Thierry Jonquet. On the several title variations used on the comic and the film, the cleverest is the least-used, the French comic book [Re]Assignment.