July 2020

The Jackal (1997)

DIRECTOR: Michael Caton-Jones

CAST: Bruce Willis, Richard Gere, Sidney Poitier, Diane Venora, Mathilda May, Jack Black, J.K. Simmons


The Jackal, a (very) loose remake of the 1973 Fred Zinnemann film The Day of the Jackal, is a patently ridiculous action thriller at every step of the way (sad from a movie loosely based on a meticulously logical original) but alas not enough to push it out of wallowing in flat mediocrity and into “so bad it’s good” territory.  Fans of the 1973 film, or Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel of the same name, will be left decidedly unimpressed (unsurprisingly, both Zinnemann and Forsyth lobbied to have the film’s name changed to reduce its associations with the original), and so will everyone else save the most undemanding of action and/or Bruce Willis fans.

We kick off in post-Soviet Russia, where the collapse of the Soviet Union has led to a power vacuum free-for-all which the notoriously brutal Russian Mafia is trying to fill.  When a strike team led by an alliance of tough-as-nails Russian policewoman Valentina Koslova (Diane Venora) and FBI Agent Carter Preston (Sidney Poitier) raids a mob nightclub and an ensuing fight results in the death of the brother (Ravil Isyanov) of a powerful mafia kingpin (David Hayman), the other mobster is unsurprisingly not happy, especially with the meddling American outsiders.  To this end, he hires a mysterious assassin known only as The Jackal (Bruce Willis) to carry out a high-profile assassination of a prominent US government official.  When the FBI gets wind of the assassination plot but can’t track down The Jackal himself, they turn in desperation to an imprisoned former IRA sharpshooter, Declan Mulqueen (Richard Gere), whose path has crossed with The Jackal’s before.  Teamed up with (re: under the supervision of) Preston and Koslova, Declan’s freedom might hinge on his ability to find and thwart The Jackal before it’s too late.

There are few things that make me mentally check out of a thriller like this faster than when it is completely unable to convince me of the title character’s ostensible expertise.  We’re told time and time again what an elite assassin The Jackal is, but the movie never does a credible job of showing it.  Instead, we get labored, try-hard attempts that make things absurdly overcomplicated.  Does The Jackal quietly slip across at some unguarded point along the 3,000 mile US-Canadian border?  No, he buys a sailboat and enters it in the Mackinaw to Chicago race, cheekily waving at the Coast Guard while he sails into the United States across the finish line of a regatta, so we can marvel at his untouchable criminal prowess (or something).  Nor is a simple sniper rifle good enough for this overachiever.  No, he must recruit some black market slob (Jack Black) to build him a remote-controlled precision gun mount for a rifle capable of firing 100 explosive rounds before the first one hits its target, a mount and weapon so huge it must be lugged around in the back of a van.  How does he dispatch a pursuer?  Paint the door handle of his van with a spray-on deadly poison that quickly sends the man into a convulsing death, because a twitching corpse next to your car in a parking garage is surely the most inconspicuous way to go about this.  At every step of the way, the movie makes The Jackal’s machinations absurdly convoluted and overly complicated in a try-hard attempt to make him look diabolical, while having quite the opposite effect.  Just compare all the overcomplicated nonsense going on here to the low-key, spare, simple, deviously logical plans of John Malkovich’s assassin in 1993’s vastly superior In the Line of Fire, or for that matter, to Edward Fox’s Jackal in the original Day of the Jackal.  Those characters convinced us of their competence as assassins without being so show-offy about it.

Director Michael Caton-Jones, who previously helmed 1995’s Rob Roy, disappointingly takes quite a few steps down here.  It’s hard to say whether it’s Caton-Jones’ fault, or the logic-deficient script by Chuck Pfarrer, or both, but Caton-Jones doesn’t do much to enliven the proceedings, and the way he directs a few scenes is unintentionally snicker-inducing.  Just look at the tortured way he tries to drag out the “suspense” in the climactic race against time, and how interminably long it takes the ostensibly no-nonsense assassin to push a button.  This echoes a similar dragged-out bit in an earlier scene, the first time Declan and The Jackal lock eyes, where The Jackal must turn his head (in “dramatic” slow-motion), lower his sunglasses, cheekily wave, then finally go for the draw, so we can have a clumsily choreographed shootout and chase.  Edward Fox’s Jackal was a cold, efficient, all-business man who didn’t have time for this kind of melodramatic nonsense.  There’s other stuff thrown in along the way, like Declan’s uneasy alliances with Preston and Koslova, and his reunion with his Basque ex-flame (Mathilda May), who knows what The Jackal looks like, but none of it adds up to much.  After all the (overly) convoluted cat-and-mouse games leading up to the would-be assassination, we devolve into as generic of an action thriller climax as one could imagine, with the hero chasing the villain through the subway, people leaping in front of trains, and the villain grabbing a hostage, the better to buy crucial moments to fill his obligatory villain quota of taunting the hero.

The only novel thing about the casting (apart from Richard Gere and Diane Venora taking stabs at Irish and Russian accents) is action hero Bruce Willis switched around as the bad guy.  The role of the emotionally vacant assassin isn’t much of a challenge, but it forces Willis to submerge any John McClane-esque panache.  With his smart-ass action hero shtick neutered, Willis’ one-note “performance” mostly consists of donning a series of disguises (none of which are that effective) and dispatching some collateral damage (often in over-the-top, excessive ways).  Meanwhile, taking Richard Gere seriously as a former IRA terrorist is just as challenging to our suspension of disbelief as taking him seriously as an Irishman.  Sidney Poitier adds a touch of class and authority to the proceedings and mostly manages to stride through with his dignity unscathed, and Diane Venora, released from the typecasting of the long-suffering wife she tends to be relegated to, is effective as the hard-ass Koslova, and her Russian accent sounds better than Gere’s Irish one (meanwhile, Bruce Willis’ attempt at a Canadian accent for one of his false identities consists of tacking on “eh?” to the end of sentences).  Maybe the movie would have been better with more focus on Poitier and Venora, as they’re about the only cast members who seem convincing in their roles, and their performances are about as good as they can be within the limitations of their material.  Smaller roles include J.K. Simmons as one of the FBI agents, Mathilda May as Declan’s Basque ex-lover with her own grudge against The Jackal, and Jack Black and Stephen Spinella as two of The Jackal’s hapless acquaintances, a black market gunsmith who asks too many questions, and a gay Washington bureaucrat who doesn’t get what he’s expecting when he brings The Jackal home with him (the latter plot point is, actually, about the only one retained from the 1973 film).

The Jackal might attract some interest by virtue of starring Bruce Willis (and the novelty of him cast as the villain), but it’s unlikely to satisfy any but the most undemanding of Willis and/or action fans.  For everyone else, it’s a sloppily-handled, logically flimsy “thriller” that’s long on hackneyed plot contortions but short on legitimate thrills.

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