Robert Rath (Sylvester Stallone) is a solitary soul thanks to his line of work: he cannot afford to make connections with others because not only would it endanger him, it would endanger them as well. That occupation is of hitman, and he's the best in the business, though still able to show compassion when the need arises such as today when he took a mark out into the swamps and allowed him to shoot himself rather than be shot; it's not much, but that's about as emotionally lenient as Rath gets. However, when he returns home the mysterious contact he only communicates with through the internet has another job...
And Rath is one of those assassins who is just after one last job and then he'll quit for good, having had enough of the executioner's life, another reason why we're supposed to like him thanks to him realising all this killing cannot be beneficial to the soul. While you could envisage this pulled off in the sort of Hong Kong action thriller the production appeared to be emulating, in the hands of director Richard Donner and his team it came across as contrived stuff, which explains why it was one of those Stallone movies which saw his action crown slip for the umpteenth time - not to worry, though, Sly, as there would be another chance at a hit just around the corner as ever.
Back at Assassins, on the other hand, it was clear everyone was hoping for a seriously classy entry into the shoot 'em up stakes, with crisp suits, colour co-ordinated visuals leaning on gleaming whites, and a love interest for lead character Rath who was intended to represent a meeting of likeminded individuals who had kept the world at arm's length for far too long, Goddammit. She was computer whizz Electra, played by a slightly unlikely Julianne Moore, who when we first meet her is spying on her neighbours with hi-tech surveillance equipment, shorthand in these things for computer genius but emotionally adrift and possibly nuts. It takes an encounter with Rath to warm her up and care about someone other than her pet cat, naturally.
But the title of this was plural, so who was the other hitman? It wasn't Julianne, it was imported Spanish star Antonio Banderas, a versatile presence at home but finding himself recruited for an unexceptional bad guy role here, compensating for the lack of anything to get his teeth into by sailing way over the top in his performance. Rath first meets him when Banderas' Miguel Bain steals his thunder by shooting dead his latest target at a funeral, a chase ensues, as it must in these circumstances, but Bain gives him the slip. All this is being manipulated by that mysterious anonymous person on the other end of the computer, and we're not massively surprised to learn Bain is holding conversations through cyberspace just as Rath has been.
It all hinges on the possession of a computer disc which Electra has, and everyone else wants, but after a moment fraught with peril where it seems Bain will get that and bump her off as well, she throws her lot in with her captor and saviour. Some films can do a lot with simple genre conventions, but Assassins was trying so hard to be cool and collected that it all felt empty, no matter what intellectual pretensions it may have staked its claim to: Stallone wears glasses at one point to show us he's no ordinary murderer, no, he is a thinking man's murderer which must be great compensation to his victims. Donner did serve up the action setpieces with customary effectiveness, but that sense of a film straining to say something different yet not so different that it turns the audience off was what scuppered it. The original screenwriters had been the Wachowski siblings who would strike it lucky with The Matrix soon after, maybe if they'd stuck with their ideas this wouldn't have been a missed opportunity. Music by Mark Mancina.