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Making a movie about your deepest passion can be tricky.

Dive too deeply into the passion and its surrounding culture and you'll bore most of your audience. But if you take the "introduction" tack -- go at it with a light hand, giving audiences time to see what makes your crush such a marvelous thing -- people will leave the theater having been both entertained and enlightened a bit.

Robert Duvall's by now well-known love of the tango just about wrecks "Assassination Tango." The film, which Duvall wrote and directed, is a thin contrivance, an excuse to head to Buenos Aires and take a spin with young Latin lovelies. Sure, he's having a ball, but what's in it for us?

If anyone deserves to produce a vanity project, it's Duvall. One of our most accomplished and tenured character actors, Duvall is usually the main attraction in every movie he graces.

But "Assassination Tango" is such a shuffling pas de deux, it only serves to highlight Duvall's indulgence.

And without anyone to edit him, Duvall's sincere passion looks fawning and adolescent, especially since his second mission of "Assassination Tango" seems to be to show us what a major stud he still is.

Duvall plays John, a hitman living with his girlfriend (Kathy Baker) and her daughter, Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller). In the film's opening scene, in fact, John and Jenny are in a Brooklyn dance hall, admiring the dancers.

In any other movie, a hitman of Duvall's age would be semi-retired or looking to get out. We don't know what John's feelings on this are, so it's a kind of viewer stumbling block when he accepts a job in Argentina.

He's got a stable life with women who love him and a string of beauty parlors he owns. Why take the job? Unless . . . it's just a ludicrous excuse to go to Tango Land. The only conclusion is to be mad at writer-director Duvall for such a flimsy set-up.

John goes to Buenos Aires and meets the family of one of many of the victims of some heinous general who has political enemies rubbed out, we suppose. Duvall clearly doesn't have much passion for this part of the story.

So while he waits for the appointed time to strike, he watches lithe, beautiful women being led around a dance floor in what may be dream sequences. (Another scene that has him artlessly interviewing Argentinians about tango feels like a documentary.) Again, it's hard to follow the clumsy storytelling.

He meets Manuela (Luciana Pedraza, Duvall's real-life love), of course the best dancer in all of Tango Land.

He approaches her, asks for lessons and generally embarrasses himself and his age group for shamelessly pursuing a young woman.

Duvall does a lot of that in "Assassination Tango." He orders up a call girl, frequently goes shirtless and creakily climbs through windows.

Growing older gracefully is the art of knowing when to say when. Duvall, with a bad mustache, slicked-back hair and ratty ponytail, looks like Uncle Leo from "Seinfeld."

For all her beauty, Pedraza is no actress. Though light on her feet, her wooden performance drags down an already lumbering film.

Maybe Duvall should have consulted another aging director who insists on pairing himself with pretty younger things. While Woody Allen looked ridiculous playing opposite Debra Messing and Helena Bonham Carter, he's deftly introduced millions of viewers to some of his passions -- jazz, literature, New York City architecture -- all without alienating audiences.

Too bad, because this laughable film will stand as Duvall's valentine to the dance he loves.


* *

STARRING: Robert Duvall, Ruben Blades and Kathy Baker

DIRECTOR: Robert Duvall

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

RATING: R for language and some violence

THE LOWDOWN: Tango aficionado Robert Duvall plays a hitman with an excuse to go to Buenos Aires.


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