If you ever want to guarantee that I will love your movie, start it off with a shot like this:
Writer/director/all-around-entrepreneur Bobby Guions won so much goodwill with this scene that when Dinner with an Assassin later took a turn (or numerous turns) for the ridiculous, I didn’t care, I was on this movie’s side. The Divine Hotel Riviera is a Newark landmark, built in 1922. As the wonderful NewarkHistory.com tells us, Philip Roth’s parents spent their honeymoon there, and after the Depression facilitated a slide into decrepitude, it was later bought (and renamed) by Father Divine, the African American preacher, in 1950. So already in one shot Guions invokes multiple layers of Newark history, and beautifully at that.
(Anyone interested into digging into the hotel’s history, by the way, can find its financial ledgers in Father Divine’s papers at Emory University! My friend and colleague Beryl Satter also wrote a great article on Father Divine’s unique gender politics, which included an emphasis on celibacy).
In any case, we also have a plot. It turns out our titular assassin is carrying out a hit up there:
Again, I love this: a CGI headshot (that looks better in motion, for what it’s worth), and an aftermath involving a strangely unbroken window:
Guions tries a little hard to cultivate our sympathy for the assassin; apparently he only takes out drug dealers who sell to children and other “lowlife scum” (as his mysterious employer calls them over the phone), thereby lessening the usual moral ambiguity of the typical assassin flick. Le Samourai or Ghost Dog, this is not.
It is, however, a really enjoyable b-movie. As our assassin, John Jet offers low-key charisma and impressive fight-scene moves, as he begins to fall in love with the surviving partner of his latest target:
Though the filmmaking largely takes place around the Hotel (with Hopewell Baptist Church next door), we get a skyline view of Newark, a fortuitous airplane that suggests this backyard is near the airport, and what appears to be a digitally-invented store. That last touch is pure moxie.
Dinner with an Assassin is rough around the edges. Most of the rest of the plot concerns the assassin simultaneously falling in love and fighting bad guys (including one so evil that he writes “we are all dead” on his cigarettes!), all over the course of one long, frequently interrupted dinner, which makes little sense. That said, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn did not kick nearly this much ass when they made a movie about their meal.
As a filmmaker, Guions cuts some corners; the “score,” as it were, comes straight out of the preset fills on Garage Band (“Edgy Rock Bass” at one point, I believe), and he dishes out a twist ending that barely earns the term. But the whole affair feels less like the smug, tired, forced retroisms of much contemporary cult-bait, and more like the exuberant cinematic hucksterism of the early straight-to-video feeding frenzy. Like The Ironbound Vampire, Dinner with an Assassin offers little direct commentary on Newark’s complicated urban history, but is wholly steeped in that history, serving as a valuable document of scrappy, enterprising filmmaking that makes wonderful use of the city as location.
Bobby Guions appears to be a true Newark filmmaker, born and raised. He’s slightly elusive online of late, but his now-abandoned Vimeo biography has him beginning filmmaking at age twelve, and the Star-Ledger reported him filming another movie at the Riviera in 2010. He was a judge at the Newark Black Film Festival in 2012, as he mentioned on Twitter—but the tweet-stream dries up shortly thereafter, and the website for his BG Films is currently down.
Here’s to hoping he’s just laying low while buried in post-production on some new local gem…