Cinemalphabet: J is for The Jackal (1997
Before watching The Jackal I didn’t realize Michael Caton-Jones’ in the director’s chair all but guaranteed schlocky, unintentional lulz. With a resume boasting films such as: Basic Instinct: Risk Addiction, City (shitty) by the Sea and truly wretched Doc Hollywood, I guess I should have known better. For years I avoided The Jackal, because La Mommie raised me right; I had seen the vastly superior original – Day of the Jackal (1973), which should have been the final word on things. I haven’t yet managed to catch Carlos (another film tackling the events), but based on the critical praise its received, I’m certain it’s head and shoulders above this silly, Willis-Gere-Poitier remake
Roger Ebert offered this brief summary of The Jackal‘s chief flaw:
“The Jackal” is a glum, curiously flat thriller about a man who goes to a great deal of trouble in order to create a crime that anyone in the audience could commit more quickly and efficiently.
I have to give the film credit; at least it set its sights much lower than the original. If you don’t know, the original film centers around a hired assassin and his attempt to kill Charles de Golly and the manhunt that ensues! Similar to Z, Day of the Jackal unfolds in breathtaking speed, while balancing the demands of telling a political story convincingly. The Jackal, on the other hand, eschews offering the audiences a convincing plot or intelligent characters and instead hopes the audience will be hypnotized by the dizzying array of wretched hairpieces affixed to Willis’ lovely dome, which are used the way cable access programming uses those crappy wipes to jankily transition to the next shitty, implausible scene.
Oddly, though not surprisingly to me, Bruce’s acting isn’t the biggest problem. Oh no, that dubious distinction is reserved for Richard Gere, who unlike Willis is usually the chief reason a shitty film starring him doesn’t work. That said, when Gere is on – see: Chicago, Pretty Woman, Primal Fear or Shall We Dance – he is a reason for getting up in the morning. So when I say that Gere stinks ten ways to Sunday, I do so with much ache in my heart and pain in my stomach.Gere showcases the world’s worst “Irish” accent. I suspect he was coached by someone who runs their dialect coaching business out of an old, intact Burger King restaurant.
Gere’s shitty Lucky Charms “Irish” accent starts off bad and goes on to sink to levels beyond the punishment the “Irish” accent sustained during the filming of The Devlin’s Own. But who cares because Gere is so freaking gorgeous. That the “Irish” accent is stinky is criminal. That the director insisted on punishing the audience with it is unforgivable. But Gere’s not the only one wielding a terrible accent. The normally fabulous Diane Venora is saddled with a craptastic “Russian” accent that like so many bad “Russian” accents before her tries to soar, but comes to rest squarely in “Moose and Squirrel” territory.
Among the many things annoying about the film is its attempt to elevate even the most pitiful thriller tropes. In this case recruiting a reluctant harden criminal in order to assist the frazzled johnny lawmen in their attempt to snare The Jackal before he is able to procure all his weaponry and complete his mission. Other movies – like The Rock or Sneakers – execute this trope much better, but to be clear it’s shopworn offering little in the way of narrative interest or conflict development. That said, there are some nice turns by J.K. Simmons and even Jack Black, who tends to do his best work as a part of a large ensemble.
I’ve gone as a long as I could without mentioning the legendary Sidney Poitier, who appears as a FBI mucky muck whose characterization seems to be the blueprint for many of Morgan Freeman’s future phoned-in head-brother-in-charge performances. Poitier is marvelous, which only highlights all that is wrong with the film. Poitier moves and acts convincingly like a federal agent, which makes since given he played a role similar to this one in the highly underrated and charming Sneakers.
As I mentioned, Bruce’s performance is not the problem here. In fact, he’s quite engaging – given the flimsy story and character development – as “The Jackal”. Willis is adept at making otherwise stock characters informed by malevolence and apathy feel well rounded and even a bit charming. In an early scene The Jackal meets with a forger and while there is tension because often a character as ruthless as The Jackal’s supposed to be usually wastes lots of time offing anyone who might be traced back to him, Willis’ Jackal makes calculated decisions about which of his contacts are worth the bullet.
I really liked that about his character and I really enjoyed how he played those scenes. The Jackal, while professional, is not cold in the way most films about hired assassins would usually depict such a person, and that’s pretty refreshing too. Willis strikes a similar note in The Siege. As a political thriller, The Jackal is a soggy retread of themes familiar to the audience. As another example of Bruce Willis’ Teflon like ability not to have any stink stick to him no matter how punishing the material, well The Jackal is another stellar example of the undeniable charms of Mr. Willis.