'Jackal' Lacks Crackle Review: Star power and firepower add nothing to the original thriller, 'The Day of the Jackal.'

November 14, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

According to press reports, director Michael Caton-Jones says he hasn't seen "The Day of the Jackal," the 1973 thriller on which his contemporized version, "The Jackal," is based. But whatever he gained in staying artistically pure has been lost by missing the chance to learn a few lessons from his elders.

This "Jackal," which was adapted by Chuck Pfarrer from the original screenplay, adheres to the same broad template of its antecedent: Bruce Willis plays the titular villain, an expert marksman and master of disguises, who is hired to assassinate a high-level U.S. government official. (The target of "The Day of the Jackal," which itself was adapted from Frederick Forsythe's book, was French President Charles De Gaulle.)

Like the original, Willis' Jackal is a man of few words, who pays "half now, half on delivery" when he buys his custom-made guns. He also expertly manipulates the people he meets on his travels, only to kill them when they've outlived their usefulness.

When the present-day Pimpernel is hired by a Russian Mafioso to carry out a blood vendetta, a team of international intelligence operatives assumes the task of finding the consummate man without a face, while he burrows ever deeper through a global haystack of airports, back-alley arms dealers and safe houses.

Sidney Poitier makes a rare screen appearance as Carter Preston, the FBI deputy director who tracks the Jackal from Moscow to Helsinki to Canada to the United States; Diane Venora plays the Russian intelligence officer who helps him.

The most notable new element in Caton-Jones' "Jackal" is Richard Gere, who plays Declan Mulqueen, an IRA terrorist locked up in a maximum-security U.S. prison. Because he once confronted the Jackal face-to-face, he can help identify him, physically and through his modus operandi. When the Feds agree to spring Mulqueen temporarily, they are assured that he won't take a powder. After all, he gives them his word.

And therein lies the basic problem with "The Jackal": It's too soft where it should be tough and too loud when it should be quiet. After introducing Gere's character, purportedly to provide some edge and ambiguity to the story, the filmmakers proceed to make him as threatening as the Lucky Charms leprechaun.

Largely because Mulqueen is drawn so early and clearly as a pretty decent guy, his scenes with Preston generate zero heat; by the time they're on the Jackal's trail any sense of danger or mistrust between the two men has evaporated into a warm and squishy love fest. (The lack of energy that plagues "The Jackal" extends to supposedly gripping scenes: When a leak is discovered on the team, it's handled like a mid-weekly sales meeting.)

Willis does a pretty good job as a buffed-out version of the Jackal, whose earlier incarnation might have inspired the latter-day Austin Powers. He has successfully hidden his signature smirk behind pursed, pooched-out lips and he moves with the focused, slithery speed necessary to disappear at will.

Still, with so little at stake around him, it's all too easy to become distracted with the Jackal's dye jobs and toupees, which alternately evoke Judd Nelson, Giorgio Armani and Mike Ditka. And the Jackal, whose suave manners and chameleon-like smoothness are his true arsenal, is continually being upstaged by his own ordnance. Quick, quiet violence -- the scariest kind -- has been supplanted with explosions, blown-off limbs and pints of blood.

A scene wherein the Jackal punishes a money-extorting contact makes gratuitous hay of what we already know is a Very Big Gun. (And why, after going to all that trouble, doesn't our anti-hero bother to get the documents that caused the trouble in the first place?)

It used to be that a good game of cat-and-mouse was enough; today, the cat has to blow up the mouse, who doesn't die until he has taken a hostage, said something nasty and squeezed off a few rounds for good measure. Of course, it doesn't hurt if your cat and mouse can open a movie as well.

If "The Jackal" is any indication, Hollywood still hasn't learned a few basic lessons: Star power can't make up for sophistication, action doesn't have to be bigger to be better and re-tooling a good film doth not necessarily a good film make.

'The Jackal'

Starring Bruce Willis, Richard Gere, Sidney Poitier

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

Released by Universal Pictures

Rated R (strong violence and language)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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