The Jackal (1997)

D: Michael Caton-Jones
S: Bruce Willis, Richard Gere, Sidney Poitier

Curious remake of the 1973 film adaptation of Frederic Forsyth's novel The Day of the Jackal (but not, importantly, the credits assure us, based on the novel itself) which pits FBI agent Poitier, Irish terrorist convict Richard Gere and a host of international law enforcers against lone assassin Bruce Willis in a race to prevent the death of an important public figure in the U.S.

There are several things wrong with this from the outset, and most of them fall outside the merits or demerits of the film itself, so you may choose to ignore them. First of all, the entire point of both the novel and the film was that it concerned the pending assassination of Charles De Gaulle, an action which readers/viewers knew would not happen, but the fact of which did not prevent the story from being entertaining and engrossing. Secondly, in replicating the mechanics of the cat and mouse plot without its actual raison d'être, the film simply proves that there is no imagination left in Hollywood screenwriters. Why not come up with a new one? Thirdly, given that the real-life terrorist "The Jackal" has been in the press recently, there is possibly a question of, on one hand; taste, and on the other; a missed opportunity (which might well contradict the former, of course).

Add to this the fact that despite his best efforts, Bruce Willis can't really escape his likability as a performer (he can't shake off those sly Moonlighting grins), and that the ending of the film involves a more immoral treatment of an Irish terrorist than that of The Devil's Own (but one which recieved no attention whatsoever in the Irish press), and there are several strikes against it before you can begin to sort out the details.

But even with all these problems, The Jackal manages to be an enjoyable thriller which is even more interesting given the predominance of so called hi-octane action blockbusters in recent years. It takes time to move slowly through an involved plot and attempts to inject psychology into stock characters (albeit less successfully than in the previous incarnations). It moves steadily towards a series of climaxes, where it does, finally, turn into an action movie and provides plenty of explosions and bullet-ridden corpses to please the punters. But all in all it remains within a genre rapidly disappearing from the American screen.

Scots director Michael Caton-Jones has done a good job of handling the pace, and draws good performances from the actors. Despite some dramatic implausibilities and conveniences, you tend to go with it and buy into the human tensions and conflicts as well as the overall assassination plot. Gere mounts a concinving Irish accent, if not an attitude, and it is fun to see Poitier still plying his trade after all this time (he even gets a big action moment). But the emphasis remains on Willis as the ice cold killer, and here the film is let down by the actor's lack of a believabe amorality. He tries hard, but can't shake off the cherubic charm he has cultiavated for so long. The Jackal emerges less a monster than a dude, which doesn't serve the overall film and leaves it with a hollow centre.

Ultimately The Jackal will entertain the casual cinemagoer. But it never generates the kind of white-knuckle tension it ought to, and leaves you less satisfied than you'd like. It is a superficial homage to form which lacks true substance. Pity.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.