Stallone, Banderas play king of the hill


In "Assassins," Sylvester Stallone plays the Cal Ripken of the killer elite: He hasn't missed a job in decades!

Meanwhile, Antonio Banderas is the rookie of the year.

The movie, slicker than 10W-40, is coldly amusing in an exceedingly professional way, but hardly original. Despite the high-tech effects and action set piece after action set piece, underneath it's one of the most ancient of melodramatic formulas: the one about the old pro and the gifted upstart struggling for the top of the hill. It repeats other themes, as well.

first there's the old "ethical killer" thing, where we are supposed to bond with Stallone's Robert Rath because he allows a former assassin to kill himself rather than be dispatched like a "mark" (victim). Such a sensitive guy!

Then there's that killer culture thing: Somehow, at the very apex of the pyramid of professional undercover operators, where the master sharpshooters live and kill, everybody knows everybody else, at least by reputation. Moreover, so refined are the skills at this level that only members of the club can read the signatures of their peers.

So it was that Hannibal Lector alone could locate Buffalo Bill for the FBI by reading clues too subtle for the feds, and so it is that only Stallone's Rath can find Miguel Bains (Banderas). Thus the film is an extended mano-a-mano between these two chaps, secretly hard-wired to baby-boomer fears of usurpation by ambitious youth. It's Arthur facing Lancelot, Hemingway facing Mailer, Stallone facing Banderas.

Stallone, for what may be the first time in his life, keeps his shirt on, both the one of cloth and the one of hair. His hang-dog face and eyes like dark, limpid pools of sheer remorse are pretty much the whole show. He's that familiar figure, the man of action grown tired and slower of reflex; worse, he's turned contemplative and seems to have come to the idea that once the moral imperative of the Cold War has been removed, so has the moral imperative of his profession. Now he's operating on pure skill, without a whisper of emotion.

But, on a job in Seattle, he learns he has a competitor: The passionate, show-offy Banderas, blazing with ambition to be No. 1. (Who keeps such tables? The Professional Assassins Rating Bureau?) Anyhow, reading the signs, Rath learns how to intercept Bains, and the two exchange merry insults and .22 caliber bullets while rocketing through down town traffic. It's the ultimate David Letterman cabdriver routine.

Then Rath agrees to one more task, to hunt down and "retire" a mysterious cyberbandit who penetrates computer nets and sells the info. This turns out to be Julianne Moore, called "Electra," whom somebody is still trying to turn into a major star. She's much too intelligent for the testosterone-a-rama that ensues (You keep expecting her to say, "Please, boys, grow UP!"), but she's game and delivers what is probably her best commercial performance.

Naturally, rather than killing her, Rath saves her and falls in love with her; thus the two of them are pursued by the vicious Bains and, just to keep things credible, the movie tosses in an amiable McGuffin, in the form of a mystery disk that everybody keeps trying to get. Moreover, we know what Rath and Electra don't, which is that the shadowy master plotter who sends Rath his orders via e-mail has also hired Bains.

Many questions go unanswered, such as how does an actor named Banderas end up playing a guy named Bains. But the director is just as much an old pro as Rath. It's Richard Donner, of "Lethal Weapon" fame, probably the best director Stallone has ever worked with. He gives the film serenely confident professionalism and keeps it hurtling ahead so swiftly that the absurdities never seem to weigh it down. He accomplishes something heretofore considered impossible: He gets you to care about Sylvester Stallone.


Starring Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas and Julianne Moore

Directed by Richard Donner

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R (profanity, violence)


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