Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Don

Through mere circumstance, I happened to watch a couple of recent thrillers this week co-starring Donald Sutherland, the great Canadian actor known best, I suppose, as the original Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman's Oscar-winning film M*A*S*H. Of course, he may today be best known for fathering Kiefer Sutherland, TV's intrepid world-saver Jack Bauer on the Fox adventure series 24 (and for all the Canadian actors who have appeared on 24 over the years, it's curious that Donald hasn't been tapped for a guest shot or two).

HOLLOW POINT is a 1996 direct-to-video action movie that you probably ignored on video store shelves, but is worth 90 minutes of your time. It's a lighthearted action romp that teams Thomas Ian Griffith (EXCESSIVE FORCE) as a pill-popping ex-DEA agent and yummy Tia Carrere (RELIC HUNTER) as a tough FBI agent that compete with one another to capture a colorful mobster played by John Lithgow (3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN). Sutherland steals all of his scenes as a very effective mob assassin who murders Tia's friend in retaliation for her busting up a mobster's son's wedding. What's tricky about the role is that, after Griffith and Carrere capture him early in the film, instead of busting Sutherland, they cart him around to use as information. Sutherland becomes, in effect, a comic-relief sidekick who befriends his captors and even gives them his loft as a wedding present (don't ask). It's a role that necessitates a good deal of charm, because the movie demands that we like Sutherland--so much so that it's easy to forget that he's a killer. A charming and eccentric killer, to be sure, but one who's very good at his job.

Sidney J. Furie, a former Hollywood A-list director now relegated to DTV fare, does a good job keeping the action moving and the laughs coming. I can watch lovely Carrere in just about everything, and even though she's obviously miscast as an FBI agent, she fares better than Griffith, who's not my favorite leading man and certainly one who seems uncomfortable sparring romantically with his leading lady. He's fine, I suppose, and gets along okay with Carrere. At least he's not Lorenzo Lamas.

Heavier than HOLLOW POINT but no less entertaining is THE ASSIGNMENT, which came out a year later in 1997. Unlike HOLLOW POINT, THE ASSIGNMENT actually received some theatrical playdates, but very few. It probably appeared on no more than a few dozen American screens, although one was in Chicago where it was reviewed by Roger Ebert for the Sun-Times.

THE ASSIGNMENT casts Sutherland as Henry Fields, an upper-level CIA employee who becomes obsessed with capturing an international terrorist named Carlos the Jackal. Stunned to discover that an average Naval seaman named Annibal Ramirez (Aidan Quinn) bears an amazing physical resemblance to Carlos, Fields uses his political pull to "volunteer" a reluctant Ramirez for a dangerous mission: to impersonate Carlos and convince the KGB (the film takes place in the late 1980s) that the killer is in the CIA's hip pocket, forcing the Russians to assassinate him.

Fields and a Mossad agent named Amos (Ben Kingsley) spend two months at a deserted Montreal prison, training Annibal to think like, act like, react like, even make love like Carlos. His disguise must be absolutely perfect for the plan to work.

Directed by Christian Duguay, a Canadian filmmaker with some very good genre credits such as SCREAMERS (a sci-fi movie based on a Philip K. Dick story) and LIVE WIRE (which casts Pierce Brosnan as a bomb squad officer chasing a terrorist), THE ASSIGNMENT is a smartly developed and paced thriller with a couple of exciting action sequences, some wry twists, and a thoughtful, suspenseful climax. Although the very Irish-American Quinn initially seems miscast as a Cuban-American who poses as a Venezuelan (in fact, Andy Garcia turned down the role before it was offered to Quinn), he's plausible enough in a tricky performance that allows him to essay three roles: Ramirez, Carlos and Ramirez posing as Carlos. He pulls it off well, and shines in his scenes with Sutherland, whose character shows several shades of gray.

HOLLOW POINT and THE ASSIGNMENT are different types of films, but both are worth watching, and both feature chewy supporting roles for Donald Sutherland.

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