John J. (Robert Duvall) is a renaissance assassin. A consummate professional, this aging, machismo-filled killing machine is not only the best at what he does, but he’s also a tender family man, former hairdresser, boxer, and one smooth dancer. Except for the occasional bout of paranoia and a tendency to overprotect his girlfriend and especially her cute as a button daughter, John has always managed to keep his dark profession secret and separate from his idyllic private life.
That firewall gets knocked down some, however, when John’s boss sends him to Buenos Aires, Argentina to conduct a hit on a corrupt army general. For one thing, the job, which was supposed to take three days, tops, lingers for weeks when an accident delays the general’s return to the country. This causes John to break a promise he made to his stepdaughter by forcing him to miss her birthday.
Yet, the delayed job also screws up John’s budding relationship with Manuela (Lucinana Pedraza), an attractive young tango dancer. Seduced as much by Manuela’s mesmerizing dancing as he is by Manuela herself, John realizes he could easily be sucked into her alluring world if not for his loved ones back home…and the bit of nasty business that brought him to Argentina in the first place.
“Assassination Tango,” as its title suggests, is an oil and water mix that never really gels. Such storytelling juxtapositions, while difficult to pull off, are fine and even powerful when they work. But Duvall, who directed, produced and wrote as well as stars in the film, never figures out how to bring these two stories together. The result is ten minutes of a confusing, never fully explained conspiracy thriller interrupted by ten minutes of a pedantic ode to the beauty of tango, and so on. Rather than complement each other, these two competing storylines trip over each other’s feet like a couple of novices at their first dance lesson.
The second main problem with the film is that everything comes way too easily for John J. While there are a few hiccups along the way, John merely waltzes in and performs his hit on a powerful national figure the way some goon with a ski mask would knock off the local bank branch. Similarly, he slips through a backstage door during a performance, becomes entranced with Manuela’s performance, and manages to arrange for private dance lessons with her at a club the very next day.
While it may be a bit too harsh to call “Assassination Tango” a vanity project for Duvall, the film displays all the unbridled enthusiasm of someone showing off a brand new hobby. There are some nice moments scattered about here and it’s almost always a pleasure watching Duvall on screen. Nonetheless, with its clumsy storytelling and lack of someone to filter Duvall’s gushiness about the subject matter, “Assassination Tango” winds up shooting itself in its own dancing feet.