By Owen Gleiberman
Updated October 13, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Guns with silencers are bound to figure in any movie about professional killers, and, sure enough, Assassins, starring Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas as rival freelance hitmen, has more than its share of meticulously muffled gunfire — scene after scene of thud-thud, rather than bang-bang. The movie is meticulously muffled, too: There’s so much dead air floating around in this glum, icy-cool thriller that the director, Richard Donner, seems to be trying for an art-house version of his Lethal Weapon series (The 400 Blows to Your Head?). Stallone, who looks like he’s posing for some action heroes’ Mount Rushmore (rocky has truly become the word for him), is the wayward veteran desperate to get out of the business. Banderas, in the wild-card role, is the young psycho renegade bucking to take Stallone’s place by rubbing him out, much as Stallone did 15 years before to his Soviet hitman mentor. Assassins has a few suspenseful confrontations, but to get to them you have to wade through countless scenes of monosyllabic brooding, all shot in the kind of elegantly sterile beige and slate tones that suggest someone’s half-baked idea of a ”minimalist” thriller. This movie, in other words, is about an existential war of wills carried out by two low-concept ciphers.

You certainly couldn’t accuse Banderas of walking through his role. He gives a comically charged performance, cackling like a hyena, his eyes insanely alive, his bodily radar quivering in three directions at once as he pumps bullets into anyone who gets in his way. (To this guy, innocent bystanders are ants.) Stallone isn’t trying nearly as hard, and, in a strange way, I appreciated that. His transparently blasé, can-I-go-to-my-trailer-now? attitude almost passes for wit in a movie that’s at once so barren and preposterous. To relieve the mano-a-mano monotony, Stallone has been paired in a campy-cute romance with Julianne Moore, as a surveillence expert who’s like Batgirl played by Annie Hall. Assassins doesn’t hit true laughability, however, until its interminable climax, in which Sly sits all day long in a Caribbean bank before walking out at closing time, knowing full well that Banderas, rifle poised, is waiting to kill him in the exact same spot where Stallone stood 15 years before. I couldn’t help thinking: Why doesn’t he just slip out the back door? C

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