Friday November 14, 1997
Intended as a meat-and-potatoes espionage thriller, "The Jackal" has come off the stove as an overcooked stew of random ingredients. Sporadically effective, it appears not to have particularly excited the people who made it, and that lackadaisical quality is a drawback.
Inspired by the rough outline of the 1973 film "The Day of the Jackal," which focused on a plot to do away with French leader Charles de Gaulle, "The Jackal" probably sounded good enough to fill out the dance card of stars like Bruce Willis and Richard Gere and director Michael Caton-Jones. But if any of them saw this as much more than their next paycheck, it's not evident on screen.
Willis, who plays the title role of a ruthless assassin so secretive no one is sure he even exists, does get to hop in and out of numerous disguises. Val Kilmer did the same thing in "The Saint," and "The Jackal" makes you wonder if the two actors had a side bet going as to who could change identities the most, the loser agreeing to appear in the next "Batman" extravaganza.
Caton-Jones had an equally unhappy task, the cobbling together of numerous disparate elements. These include linking up-to-the-minute violence and a hip soundtrack with the boilerplate of Chuck Pfarrer's standard script about agents and counter-agents chasing each other from Moscow to Washington with stops in Helsinki, London and Montreal thrown in.
The back-story of "The Jackal" is that the Russian Mafia has gotten so powerful that FBI Deputy Director Carter Preston (Sidney Poitier) is helping local intelligence officer Valentina Koslova (Diane Venora) keep the hoodlums in line.
While Preston's main job appears to be supplying platitudes like "It's never easy taking a life," his presence irks Mafia big cheese Terek Murad (David Hayman). Terek plants axes in peoples' heads the way Johnny Appleseed planted trees, and emphasizes his ruthlessness by commenting: "I took no joy in that."
Mafia business must be good in Russia because Terek doesn't blink at the $70-million price tag when he hires the Jackal for a high-level American assassination. "I want to strike fear into the marrow of their bones," he says, sounding like a radical cancer specialist. The Jackal merely nods.
Because Willis, perhaps thinking he's in a remake of "I Walked With a Zombie," often confuses iciness with somnolence, it's hard to tell if the assassin is nodding in agreement or because he's about to fall asleep. At any rate, he takes the job, and it isn't long before the Americans know something is up.
The FBI's search for an anti-Jackal operative takes them to an imprisoned IRA stalwart named Declan Mulqueen, played by Gere with a twinkle in his eye and a lilt in his voice. Mulqueen may be behind bars, but when he tells the FBI that his word is his bond, we know he's one of the good guys. And he bears the Jackal just the kind of dark and secret grudge that screenwriters like to throw in when they're desperate for motivation.
As his credits demonstrate, director Caton-Jones (whose projects include "Scandal," "Rob Roy," "Memphis Belle" and the underappreciated "This Boy's Life") enjoys varying the kinds of films he does. But his lack of flair for the thriller genre shows in the fluctuating excitement levels--now high, now nonexistent--surrounding the Jackal as he goes about his deadly business and the FBI and company as they try to stop him.
Also up and down is the acting of the on-screen ensemble. While the two leads mainly go through the motions, Venora as always brings something unexpected to the role of the Russian intelligence major who believes "the good guys don't hide."
Perhaps the biggest surprise of "The Jackal" is that the actor who provides the glue for the production and whose conviction comes closest to making these proceedings creditable is Sidney Poitier.
Though he no longer works steadily and is venerable enough to have won the AFI's Life Achievement Award and be serving as ambassador to Japan from the Bahamas, Poitier has invested himself in these proceedings like no one else. There is a moment near the end of the film, as his character rushes with heedless, eye-widening intensity to save a life, when you can see what "The Jackal" might have become if everybody else cared that much.
The Jackal, 1997. R, for strong violence and language. An Alphaville production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Michael Caton-Jones. Producers James Jacks, Sean Daniel, Michael Caton-Jones, Kevin Jarre. Executive producers Terence Clegg, Hal Lieberman, Gary Levinsohn, Mark Gordon. Screenplay Chuck Pfarrer, based on the screenplay "The Day of the Jackal" by Kenneth Ross. Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Editor Jim Clark. Costumes Albert Wolsky. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Michael White. Art directors Ricky Eyres, John Fenner. Set decorator Kate Sullivan. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes. Bruce Willis as The Jackal. Richard Gere as Declan Mulqueen. Sidney Poitier as Carter Preston. Diane Venora as Valentina Koslova. Mathilda May as Isabella.