Assassin (2023) Review
It’s finally here, unless there’s something stashed away and kept secret, Assassin is the last film featuring Bruce Willis. Given the quality or lack thereof, of most of his later career output it seemed almost pointless to hope that he would go out on a high note, working with Jesse V. Johnson on White Elephant was probably his last chance of that. But could we at least hope that his last on-screen appearance wouldn’t be another embarrassment?
Alexa (Nomzamo Mbatha, Coming 2 America, A Hotel Called Memory) is angry and wants answers. Her husband Sebastian (Mustafa Shakir, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Luke Cage) was a drone pilot until a work-related accident put him in a coma. She demands answers from his boss Valmora (Bruce Willis, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Corrective Measures), the head of a private military operation.
Despite starting the meeting with a gun levelled at his head, Alexa ends up saving him from a knife-welding woman who rides up on a bicycle and attacks him. After the attack, his attacker claims to have no knowledge of what happened making it the latest of several similar incidents.
First time feature director Jesse Atlas (Kinesthesia, At the Green Line) and co-writer Aaron Wolfe (Record/Play) expanded the ideas in their short Let Them Die Like Lovers, which also featured Shakir, into the script for Assassin. And the first few minutes serve up enough action and questions to make the results look interesting.
Unfortunately, the answers aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. The drones Sebastion piloted were human beings whose bodies he took over using technology developed by Valmora’s team, “We kill the bad guys. Somebody else takes the fall”. The fact they’ve left an innocent person taking that fall doesn’t seem to matter.
“Assassin” is an exploration of identity. The evolution of drone warfare from remotely piloting machinery to remotely inhabiting another person raises important questions about what it means to truly be oneself. Can we retain our identity when the face in the mirror is not our own? How do we navigate our psyche when cognitive dissociation becomes a daily routine? What kind of memory is imprinted when a complete stranger wraps you in an intimate embrace, and you feel their touch on skin that isn’t actually yours?Jesse Atlas
However, while working on a case involving Adrian (Dominic Purcell, The Elimination Game, Equilibrium) his cover was blown and he took a bullet to the head. That means that Adrian, described as “the fixer’s fixer”, now has the technology as well. And Alexa, herself a former black ops agent, may be the only one who can retrieve it.
Despite the plot, Assassin is a very low-tech and low-budget film so don’t expect flashy effects or much actual science-fiction content. When Alexa takes over a body she does so by putting on a wetsuit and lying in a bathtub full of ice located in their hideout, an abandoned factory. I’m still not sure just how that, a light and a laptop connected her to a chip in the target’s brain, all we’re told is “the brain is just an electrical system”.
But, however it works, it allows us to get several short scenes where Alexa hops into a body, kills some person we know nothing about and then buggers off leaving the “drone” to suffer jail or worse. The exception is an artist named Mali, played by Andy Allo (Pitch Perfect 3, Chicago Fire) whom Adrian admires. Alexa pops in and out of her body in order to stay close to him and locate the microchip. This leads to complications since Mali has no clue about what Alexa does in her body.
There’s also a scene she becomes trapped in Mali’s body and ends up in the hideout looking at her own body in the tub. Again, no explanation for how this happened, the viewer is just expected to accept it, something that’s actually true of far too many things in Assassin.
Unfortunately for a film that, according to its director, is “an exploration of identity” the characters seem to have absolutely no care for the lives and identities they destroy. And that in turn makes it very hard for me to give a fuck about them or their fates.
As for Willis himself, he has a fair amount of screen time and actually shares scenes with the rest of the cast. He just doesn’t have much to do except bark out orders and try to sound tough. And he does it well enough, but it’s hardly a fitting role to end a career like his on.