The Lonely Eyes of a Contract Killer

Warner Bros.

No one has lonelier eyes than Sylvester Stallone.

Despite the bravado that has defined so many of his characters, despite the machine-like toughness of the human weapons he’s played so many times, there is an essential sadness to Stallone, and it translates into characters who long for human gentleness and communion that they are rarely granted. Rocky Balboa finds a chance to be seen by another lonely soul, Adrian, and to be seen by millions in his fight with Apollo Creed. He doesn’t fight because he has an aggression problem; he fights because he has a loneliness problem. Fighting is the only way he can be recognized as a human being with a name. John Rambo comes to Hope, Washington to seek out an old friend. He finds out that his friend has died, and one more person with whom he’d ever shared camaraderie is gone. He begins fighting only when his humanity is denied; he stops when it is reaffirmed by his only remaining friend. The most intense scene of First Blood doesn’t involve any guns or explosions. It involves John Rambo sitting on the floor crying like a child, mourning the loss of the only intimacy he’d ever known, the only time he’d ever belonged.

In Rocky, Stallone carried the impression of an abused puppy in need of a good home. In First Blood, he was like a neglected child, lashing out but wanting to be held. He remained true to the character closest to his heart throughout the Rocky series, though later entries in the Rambo series contained less heart and more explosions than the first. In films like Cobra, Demolition Man, and Judge Dredd, he played a caricature of the roles that made his name, and while successful, they ultimately set his career back. In the mid-’90s, Stallone made a move toward more varied action roles with films like Cliffhanger and Daylight, but they lacked depth. Stallone was looking for a way to move beyond the one-dimensional roles he’d become synonymous with, and he succeeded, with varying levels of success, only twice. The best example—one for which he was recognized and which could have turned his career—was 1997’s Cop Land. The other was Assassins in 1995, which was roundly panned by critics yet nonetheless showed an authentic weariness that was more than the role required, and hinted at Stallone’s own professional and personal fatigue.

In this largely forgotten film, Stallone plays the distillation of all his former characters and their desires. The finished product isn’t the polished work of art his established classics were, but Stallone’s intuitive understanding of what it means to look scary while feeling scared allows him to imbue a stock character—a hitman with a heart of gold (Léon: The Professional, Grosse Pointe Blank, In Bruges)—with deep feeling. The film provides a window into Stallone’s heart at a transitional point in his career, the point at which he was hoping to be seen as a serious actor.

Assassins follows Robert Rath (Stallone) as he tries to figure out who stole one of his hitman jobs. Rath is The Best™, that classic title from hitman movies (the methodology of the arrival at which is never explained, of course), and he needs to know who this usurper is. Turns out it’s Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas), a young hotshot who has studied every job Rath ever did (are there guided tapes for doing this? Some sort of hitman’s trade journal?) and wants to take over as Number One. Rath suspects the mysterious boss who gives him his assignments via a chat room (ladies and gentleman, ‘90s movie technology!) wants him dead, and has assigned Bain to do it. The two converge on a job to knock off Electra (Julianne Moore), a hacker living in Seattle. With main characters named Rath, Bain, and Electra, you understand pretty quickly what kind of movie you’re watching, and why it didn’t get taken all that seriously when it came out. Relying on that popular and critical reception is a mistake, though; Assassins has heart, and shows it from the beginning—well before Rath finds himself on the run with Electra from Bain, who now wants to kill both of them.

In a hazy prologue, we’re given to understand Rath once took a job to kill a man he considered a friend, and pulling that trigger has haunted him ever since. He waited until his friend (and fellow hitman) looked up to see Rath looking through a sniper scope before he fired, and the last thing Rath saw was the man’s eyes. Now, when he receives photos of a mark from his mysterious boss, he prints them and circles their eyes. One gathers there’s more to this than identification. When he’s looking through a gun sight at his victim, he’s allowed to stare. He’s allowed the experience of recognition, the pantomiming of imminent intimacy. The life he’s created for himself is one in which recognition has been precluded by necessity. He needs to be invisible, to never be seen or known, to never stare at another’s eyes and find even a moment’s communion. When he holds a photo of a mark, or looks at them through crosshairs, he gets permission to stare, and he takes it. The only communion with other human lives he ever gets is in the seconds before he ends them from a distance. His sadness is palpable, and there is no better actor to convey that sadness than Stallone.

Stallone’s Rath isn’t the only character longing for connection in Assassins however. Julianne Moore’s hacker, Electra, is a somewhat manic young woman who plays tough with the buyers of the data she intercepts and steals, but she is just as lonely as Rath. She has no friends, a fake name, a cat she dotes on, and little else. We only get hints of her loneliness until she’s on the run with Rath, but Moore is one of those rare performers who can project damage and longing with the slightest ineffable movement. There is a brief but affecting scene when she and Rath are holed up in a hotel room in which she washes off her makeup, puts on a white hotel bathrobe, and stares into the mirror. She looks young and small—and vulnerable—and she knows it. As her friendship with Rath develops, Electra blooms into the new attention. She has for some time known what she’s chosen to live without. In her first scene, Electra watches the other tenants of her apartment complex on a closed-circuit television she’s wired to hidden cameras in their units. The couple downstairs is having a fight, and Electra coaches them from her room, willing them to reconcile, to put down their defenses, even as she refuses to do the same. This screen is her only intimacy, her vicarious experience of humanity.

I can’t think of another actress of Moore’s generation with as much range to simultaneously project both strength and vulnerability. For more than 30 years, she has brilliantly portrayed women who project toughness and stability, but are as fractured and wounded inside as anyone. If I had to summarize the competing needs of all her characters into a single, driving impulse, it would be a desire to be known, to be seen, to be loved, and to give love. Her skin is hard, but it’s just glass, and the glass seems to fracture on the inside to dig and needle and prick. Electra is certainly not among Moore’s finest or most significant roles, but it is one of the earliest examples we get of this archetype that has morphed and shifted but held its shape across Moore’s career.

Electra and Rath, these two damaged and lonely persons, are thrust together by a system shock in the form of Antonio Banderas’ Miguel Bain. Banderas is deliciously cracked as Bain, playing a fidgety and child-like sociopath who has and needs no one. He is driven only to be the best, and to do that he must kill Rath. He’s an unrealistic character, because no one as impatient and impulsive as this could possibly succeed at what we’re supposed to believe he’s good at, but within the scope of the film, the campiness of the character is glorious, and only highlights Rath’s solemnity and Electra’s flinty effervescence.

The growing partnership between Rath and Electra begins in necessity and evolves into genuine trust. They’re alarmed by their forced intimacy at first, both of them justifiably terrified to be alone with the other, to sleep in the same room, to reveal secrets. Their first night on the run, after a tentative truce and a first foray into honesty, Electra turns to leave the room after matter-of-factly stating, “I need to be alone. I haven’t spent this much time with someone in years.” They’ve spent too long conjuring imagined intimacy from a distance to so suddenly rush into trust and connection. The real thing is too much, too soon.

The heart of Assassins—characters finding human connection through professional voyeurism—is explored in greater depth in two far better films: The Conversation (1974) and The Lives of Others (2006). In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who gets tangled up in a murder plot related to a couple he’s recording and spying on. The movie isn’t about that though. It’s about Caul’s crushing loneliness, and the way that loneliness has stunted his ability to intuit the motivations of other people, and the damage wrought in his life because of it. In Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, Ulrich Mühe plays Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi captain in East Berlin in the early 1980s tasked with gathering evidence against dissident playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Wiesler is a terrifying figure, inhumanly calm in the efficient execution of his job. Unlike Hackman’s Harry Caul, Wiesler is gifted in his ability to recognize lies, but that is the extent of his understanding of his fellow human beings. As he records the intimate conversations between Dreyman and his girlfriend, Wiesler is overcome by a set of human emotions he has never studied. He has been so focused on recognizing lies, he’s never devoted much attention to the reasons two people might be honest with each other when they don’t have to be.

Harry Caul and Gerd Wiesler have been alone for so long, locked in their own self-cannibalizing solitude, they lack the tools they need for human intimacy, no matter how much they long for it. They are unable to love, so they watch others do it. They aren’t able to laugh, so they record the laughter of others. Where they should have memories, they hold to constructed myths. Both men know a great deal about the individuals they are spying on, but don’t know enough about basic human emotions to avoid making catastrophic mistakes when they each finally decide to interfere, to reach out. Surveillance has been their pornography, and like porn it hasn’t prepared them for the realities of intimacy. They’ve preferred observation to experience for so long, they find experience doesn’t match their imagined ideal. They are safer in the shadows, and they both learn this too late to avoid damaging themselves and those they were watching and longing for intimacy with. Romantic comedies would have us believe the only thing necessary to bring human connection to a damaged heart is willingness. Anyone who has ever lain awake at night in an empty bed, drowning in a vast sea of willingness, knows this to be categorically false.

Both The Conversation and The Lives of Others are far more mature films than Assassins, making significantly more astute observations about human nature than the Stallone vehicle, but in many ways, this actually works to the latter’s advantage. Assassins is unconcerned with realism, and so allows us the catharsis of watching two disconnected, isolated characters bloom into intimacy in the space of a few days on the run. Assassins is refreshing in that it allows this intimacy to develop as a friendship. The pair never kiss, sleep together, or even hint at attraction. To look in someone’s eyes face to face rather than through a gun scope or a hidden camera, and find them looking back at them—really seeing them—is enough. These two characters have made careers of staring at people from a distance, and I can’t help but wonder if they’ve sometimes done this hoping someone will stare back. Like Harry Caul and Gerd Wiesler, they have long preferred the intimacy they imagine in their heads to the real thing, but unlike those two men, they are able to step out of their shells and develop trust.

Assassins was critically maligned on its release, and popular consensus has remained against it (the film has a 15 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes). The plot and action are unrealistic, the acting is hammy in places, and the third act drags interminably (though in the film’s defense, the slow passage of time is a plot point in the final act). The ‘90s technology is as laughable as you’d expect (floppy disks are not quite as impressive as they once were). Rath, Bain, and Electra are names you use when you’re writing comic books or episodes of American Gladiators, not a movie you want taken seriously. The basic laws of physics and logic are flaunted more than once. None of this matters, because no amount of cheese can smother the pathos of two very talented actors with a script that gives them just enough to show their vulnerability on screen.

There are certainly other action movies of this era that show emotional depth between the leads; the bond between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward Furlong in Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a good example, as is the curious friendship between Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in Léon: The Professional. But I’m hard pressed to think of another featuring two actors who carry about them such a proprietary sense of isolation and need to belong. We can only imagine what this film could have been with a stronger script and more circumspect direction.

Early in the film, right after Electra spies on her neighbors during their argument, willing them to put themselves aside and love each other, Miguel Bain bursts into the apartment complex and begins looking for her, shooting whomever gets in his way. Robert Rath shows up, and a shootout ensues. Throughout the entire scene, Portishead’s “Sour Times” plays in the background. As Rath and Bain shoot at each other and Electra fears for her life as her apartment gets blown to bits, Beth Gibbons’ angelic voice intones the song’s chorus over its dark, trip hop beats: “Nobody loves me/it’s true.” It’s a deeply lonely refrain, and the song’s blend of vulnerability and insistence feels like the perfect anthem for this character. Nobody has loved Electra, and she is entirely alone. An hour of screen time later, after Electra and Rath have escaped and gone on the run, they’re limping away from an adventure neither of them had planned, but they aren’t alone anymore. As they walk off screen, they tell each other their real names, which are as common and boring as possible. They’ve found each other. In “Sour Times,” at the end of the chorus and after a long pause, Gibbons follows up her proclamation that nobody loves her with a whispered reassurance, “Like you do.” Rath and Electra don’t find love in the Hollywood sense, but they do find friendship, and that’s worth more to these two characters than passion. After years of staring at others from a distance, someone has finally stared back.

Julianne Moore has gone on to be one of the finest actresses of her generation, winning an Oscar and getting the kind of roles most screen performers can only dream of. While her essential sadness, her outsider’s chip, is still there, we’ve stared into her vulnerability and seen her for who she is. But we can’t say the same for Stallone. With the exception of Cop Land in 1997, he wasn’t taken seriously like he wanted to be, and his career declined. In recent years he’s revived the roles that made him a star, and those have been entertaining, though it’s hard not to feel your heart break a little watching this aging actor ask to be loved for things he did better 30 years ago. Sylvester Stallone is still waiting for us to stare back. There is so much loneliness there. You can see it in his eyes.