Carlos the Jackal. His name became synonymous with fear and terror, and his terrorist actions have become a part of pop culture lore, including 1997's The Assignment, a generally forgotten but very well done thriller.
Having searched and tracked for terrorist Carlos the Jackal (Aidan Quinn), longtime CIA agent Jack Shaw (Donald Sutherland) has become obsessed with bringing the fugitive to justice. For him, it's even become personal after a chance encounter with the man. Jack concocts a plan though when he meets Annibal Ramirez (also played by Quinn), a U.S. Naval officer, who is a dead-on physical lookalike for Carlos. With help from a Mossad agent, Amos (Ben Kingsley), with similar intentions, Jack goes about convincing Annibal to help take out Carlos. They start at the bottom though, teaching him everything they can so he's ready. Their training is too good though. As he prepares to help set up an ambush of the real Carlos, Annibal realizes he has become everything he hates about the man he's supposed to kill.
Here's another case of some movie detective work paying off in the end. First released in 1997, 'Assignment' did little to no business in theaters and never gained much of a following. From director Christian Duguay though, it certainly deserves better recognition than its got since then. I'd never stumbled upon it, heard it mentioned, absolutely nothing over the years, and with the cast involved, there should have been some mention -- box office struggles or not. Where the movie succeeds is its brutal honesty (to me at least) in its portrayal of some all-around nasty characters. It's a dog-eat-dog world where some innocent lives are expendable if the end result is valuable enough. Dark, brutal, cynical and never pulling a punch, this is a criminally underrated flick.
Much of that brutality and cynicism comes from Irish actor Aidan Quinn. An immensely talented actor, Quinn nonetheless just hasn't appeared in many big, mainstream feature films so it's always good to see him. His dual role is both good and bad. In general, he doesn't seem like an obvious choice to play a Naval officer with Cuban blood, physically at least. His Carlos part -- limited though it is -- comes across as stereotypically cartoonish. It made me think of Tony Montana; heavy accent, hot-headed, callously ruthless. Thankfully, much of the story's focus is on his lookalike counter. The Carlos character is a means to the end and simply gets the ball rolling.
Where Quinn especially stands out is his portrayal of Annibal Ramirez, the Naval officer with a beautiful wife, Maura (Claudia Ferri), and family thrust into this most unlikely, dangerous and even suicidal mission for his country's best interest. To say the least, it is an intense, uncomfortable performance. We see a strong-willed man crumble in front of us and then build himself back up into a completely different person. Quinn does a great job as Annibal as he we see his demons and anguish rip him apart. Sutherland as the driven, even obsessed Shaw has a sinister edge that keeps you guessing. Just how far is he willing to go to get the job done? In a smaller part (read: underused), Kingsley is a scene-stealer as Amos, the Mossad agent with a human side who bonds with Annibal and his trials and tribulations. Three very well done and above average performances from three actors who dominate the screen throughout.
Certain scenes especially stand out from the rest here. Shaw and Amos' brutal training sessions put a twist on the same old, same old training montage sequence. Once Annibal's mission is put into play, the pace ratchets up with one extended chase sequence (on foot and by car) setting the bar high in terms of action. The finale too is especially memorable, and with a well-hidden twist or two waiting. Filmed in Canada, Israel and Hungary, 'Assignment' does have a low-budget look at times with some pretty cheap CGI at other times, but in the end, the personal, human element makes a better, far more positive effect than any negatives. Well worth a watch. Highly recommended.
The Assignment <---trailer (1997): ***/****