“Assassins” Was the Wachowskis’ First Big Break, For Better or Worse

Assassins Assassins

(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Since June is Pride Month, we’re taking a deep dive into the works of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, two of the most prominent – and fascinating – transgender filmmakers around. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of the Wachowskis here.)

In the early 90s, Warner Bros bought a script from The Wachowskis as part of a three-picture deal. By 1994, Richard Donner was directing the script, called Assassins, and the sisters were doing everything in their power to get their name taken off of it. If you want to know why the Wachowskis became a directing duo instead of sticking to screenwriting, Assassins is the ur-event.

Before exploring what drove the Wachowskis to try and deny themselves credit for their Hollywood debut, first it makes sense to review the film as a discrete piece of media.

Telling the story of burned out but still the best in the game hitman Robert Rath (Sylvester Stallone), Assassins catches up with Rath going through the motions and contemplating retirement. He seems fixated one kill, that of his rival/mentor, which he recalls often in crisp impressionistic black and white.

His contractor seems to have noticed Rath’s increasingly diminished enthusiasm. In response, she –although we never see or her the contractor, the character refers to themselves as a “lady” repeatedly via computer text — has begun to also feed Rath’s contracts to rising murder star Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas). Either Rath will rise to the competition or Bain will eliminate the declining ace killer. Either result seems equally fine with the perpetually indifferent words on a laptop screen.

Eventually, their shoot and stab Olympics settle around master hacker and voyeur Electra (Julianne Moore). Rath turns face and decides to protect her while Bain grows increasingly charged at the prospect of both “winning” a contract out from under the current best in the game and then straight up taking him out. Shoot-outs, chases, and reckless horseplay in condemned buildings ensue.

From a directing standpoint, the film feels oddly chaotic at points. Donner films usually have a strong sense of geography and order even at their most action-oriented, so this feels particularly strange. The final set piece along, the aforementioned condemned building, feels almost M.C. Escher-esque in its sense of scale and place. You can feel Donner reaching for the kind of frenetic action that one might find in a John Woo film and, failing that, settling for just overwhelming the viewer with an anxious unstable camera POV.

On the acting side, the three major players seem to be operating in different worlds. Banderas is here to play, coming in hot — in multiple senses of the word. All sharp laughs, pursed lips, and jittery postures, you can feel the actor reaching for that brass ring. Still relatively new to English language work, he sometimes feels a bit undone by the longer dialogue-heavy scenes. Nonetheless, his physicality makes it easy to ignore that he was still mastering the move away from his native tongue.

Stallone, on the other hand, feels as though he has taken Rath’s depression too much to heart. His hitman rediscovering his morality feels affectless and distant during the entirety of the film. Considering he is our protagonist, it leaches into the rest of the movie. As a result, Assassins has a frantic surface spread over a shallow vaguely disconnected center. Only Moore seems to have found a comfortable range, the “just right” bear of the bunch if you will. The role feels undercooked on-screen, but she nonetheless invests it with as close to real human feeling as you can find in this movie.

After that review, it may seem that the Wachowskis simply did not want their name on a disappointing first effort. After all, even with Brian Helgeland being called in by Donner to do a complete re-write, the structure of the film and script are largely the same. In fact, a big reason the sisters were unable to deny credit was how close Helgeland’s rewrite ran to the original.

In practice, however, Helgeland’s script erased or reduced much of the wider themes the Wachowskis seemed to be pursuing in their original. Assassins had a fairly cliché logline, even in the form the siblings intended. As with the other two of Wachowskis original three-script deal, what made the script interesting came with how it engaged in the plot. In Bound, the twisty but fairly by the numbers noir plot gets new juice from it being uniquely feminist and queer. The Matrix merged a heavy dose of philosophy and brand-new technical whiz-bang to the classic trope of “the world you know is covering the truth beneath.” And, most importantly, both were intensely preoccupied with questions of identity.

Assassins has a frantic surface spread over a shallow vaguely disconnected center.

Assassins’ “we are not so different you and I/yes we are” professional killers story concerned itself with less complicated questions of identity than the other two, but they were nonetheless present. Electra, in script form, was far more clearly coded as queer. Her interest in her downstairs neighbor is much more obviously wrapped up in desire on the Wachowskis’ page then in the Donner/Helgeland final result. Rath’s obsession with chess comes up far more often and becomes a deeper structure of the story than in the film version where it feels like the thinnest of cliched metaphors.

The big screen Rath plays feels even farther away than silver screen Electra from the sisters’ version. In the movie, he is a fairly typical white hat. Sure, he was a killer for hire, but save for his first contract and his flashbacks, you could easily mistake him from an overly committed law enforcement type. Screenplay Rath is unraveling. He is scarier, meaner, and definitely less in control of himself. With a gun in his hand, he is 100 percent professional. In his apartment after a job, he is vulgar whirling dervish. He frequently destroys property and swears up a storm at the unseen contractor only to sit down at the laptop and type simple two sentence replies both empty of emotion and backbone.

It is not all bad decisions though. Helgeland writes the dynamic between Electra and Rath as one only somewhat thawing by the time we arrive at the film’s final set piece. In the Wachowski original, the two share an aggressive love scene in a hotel the night before that suggests they will be a couple at story’s end.

Thus, while a straight plot recitation of Helgeland and the Wachowskis screenplays would only differ in the film’s twist ending and perhaps one other set piece, their feeling — their themes, tone, and perhaps goals — are miles apart. One cannot say that a faithful rendering of the Wachowskis script might have birthed a better movie, but it does seem likely that it would have at least been a more interesting, complex one.

Assassins Trailer:

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