Movie review: ‘The Jackal’

jackalWith “The Day of the Jackal” (click here for my review) one of my all-time favorite novels and a top-notch thriller as a film, it was with trepidation that went to see “The Jackal” in 1997. I expected some disappointment – who wouldn’t with the build up as a modern telling of a story that didn’t need to be retold – but I wasn’t prepared for just how lousy this film turned out. It’s a true stinker. If you have absolutely nothing else to do then watch this film, but only if it’s convenient and it does still float to the surface on the cable grid.

‘The Jackal’
(1997; 124 minutes; rated R; directed by Michael Caton-Jones and starring Bruce Willis, Richard Gere and Sidney Poitier)

AN ‘INSPIRED BY’ FILM THAT IS PURE DRECK

(NOTE: I expanded this review with some additional opinion and updating links on Jan. 21, 2017.)

When I heard that someone was doing an updated version of Fred Zinnemann’s minor classic “The Day of the Jackal,” I was puzzled. Update it? It is a story set to a specific era and a specific political circumstance. The only updating in “The Jackal” is that the filmmakers just borrowed basic ideas for how the assassin works, since they obviously couldn’t come up with anything better themselves.

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According to some sources, Frederick Forsyth, who wrote the novel “The Day of the Jackal” asked that his name be taken off the credits and that’s why this stinker is a “based on” film from the original film’s screenplay.

Among the major changes is that it’s the Russian mob here who hires an assassin to kill an important U.S. official instead of a French military group hiring one to kill French President Charles de Gaulle. OK.

Bruce Willis plays “The Jackal,” a hired killer who uses disguises and deception to move forward in his operations. On the idea front, Willis uses a sailboat instead of a car to smuggle a weapon; the weapon here is a huge machine cannon not a custom-designed sniper rifle; like in the original, he hides out by pretending to be a homosexual; and, like the original, he flits across international borders with ease. After that … well, the acting’s terrible; the plot stinks and its direction is uneven at best.

Ho, hum. It isn’t done very well, so I’ll just stop with the plot lines and go through the work of the cast (not all the efforts are wasted here).

  • Golden Globe winner (not for this one) Willis tries to be smooth, cool and deadly here, but he just doesn’t do it right. It’s an “almost” proposition: He is almost good; he almost convey’s the killer’s persona; and he is almost competent here. Alas, the word “almost.” Too bad it was a swing and a strike-out for him here. Willis was pitch-perfect as “John McClane” in “Die Hard” as the brash, do-or-die cop against the terrorists. Here, when he works at coming off distant and cold, he just manages to exude boredom. In his long list of roles, Willis has done excellent turns in “The Sixth Sense” and “Fast Food Nation.” He won his Globe for TV’s “Moonlighting” and he has three other Globe nominations.
  • Also a Golden Globe winner (not for this one), Richard Gere, who plays Irish terrorist “Declan Mulqueen,” doesn’t fare much better. I’m no linguist, but I cannot imagine his Irish accent did anything but bring a scowl to the faces in the audiences in Ireland (and possibly Asia since you can pinpoint a terrible accent even on the other side of the globe). Gere doesn’t stretch himself in any way as an actor here, unlike his best-known roles in “American Gigolo,” “Pretty Woman” and “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
  • Also a bit out of water and sometimes looking bored with the role is Oscar winner (certainly not for this one) Sidney Poitier as “FBI Deputy Director Carter Preston.” Poitier, a distinguished actor with roles in films such as “To Sir, With Love” and “The Bedford Incident” (click here to read my review), didn’t do the end of his career much good with this one. “The Jackal” is Poitier’s last feature film and before he left acting in 2001, he had four TV movies to round out his resume. Poitier won his Oscar for “Lilies of the Field” and also was presented an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in film.
  • Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Jack Black plays “Ian Lamont,” who builds a cradle for Willis’ weapon and then makes the fatal mistake of trying to blackmail him. Black is at his easy-going best here, tossing off lines and even a burp with a bit of style and verve. It’s all lost however. He was also the lead in the wonderful Farrelly brothers’ romp “Shallow Hal” (click here for my review) as well as “School of Rock” and “Nacho Libre.”
  • Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Diane Venora is the most lost actor here. She plays “Maj. Valentina Koslova,” the Russian policewoman who is on Willis’ trail, too, and is understatedly solid. Venora easily conveys the staid, focused and motivated Russian who has her sights set on the downfall of the Russian mob. She moves through the role with the steadfastness of her character. However, the general cheesiness of the film thankfully lets you forget she was in it. Venora has been in “Heat” (click here for my review) and “The Insider.” She got her Globe nomination for “Bird.”
  • Oscar winner (not for this one) J.K. Simmons, you know … that Farmers Insurance guy, plays “FBI Agent T.I. Witherspoon” and is pretty milquetoast and saddled with wooden lines with his character. Simmons is so much more talented than he shows here and it’s disappointing that he couldn’t do more with the role. He’s also been in “Juno,” “Spider-Man” films and was really good in “Thank You for Smoking” (click here to read my review). Simmons won his Oscar for 2014’s “Whiplash.”

Sigh. A glimmer of promise, but it never manifests itself.

I’m not really sure how this one failed for director Michael Caton-Jones. After all, he did superior work on films such as “Scandal,” “Memphis Belle” and “Doc Hollywood.” Maybe with a different director it could have been salvaged, but I doubt it. It had terminal lack-of-original-ideas stamped all over it.

In the end you know that “The Jackal” was made because it could steal the name “The Jackal” and have some brand recognition. After that, it’s mostly pure dreck and pulling in an aged Poitier because of his status as a minor legend in cinema was just insult to injury.

The Jackal” was the 33rd ranked film at the box office in 1997 with $54.8 million, according to Box Office Mojo. It would ultimately earn $159.3 million worldwide on its budget of $60 million, according to Wiki. Domestically, the No. 1 film that year was (no kidding) “Titanic” with $600.7 million. However, “The Jackal” did finish better than better-known film “Starship Troopers” and “Donnie Brasco.” Here are the other films from 1997 that I have reviewed:

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Edward Fox, the British actor who played the original “Jackal,” reportedly turned down the chance to do a small part in the “based on” version.
  • Both Gere and Venora worked with voice coaches to perfect their accents. I would say that Gere should get his money back.
  • Gere was initially offered the role of the “Jackal” but turned it down in favor of playing the terrorist-turned-good guy.
  • Sean Connery, Liam Neeson and Matthew McConaughey reportedly turned down roles in the film. Too bad for Sean and Liam … and thank goodness the overrated and talentless McConaughey stayed away – he would have turned this bomb into an ever bigger stinker.
  • Musical group “Massive Attack” did the song played over the end credits and the popular TV series “House M.D.” used one of the group’s songs as its opening theme.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “After the filming of this movie, Bruce Willis and Richard Gere reportedly vowed to never work with each other again.”
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “At age 91, just a few months before his death, Fred Zinnemann, director of the original The Day of the Jackal (1973), on which this film is based, fought with Universal to change the title of the film. He said the original had stood the test of time and did not want the remake to have the same title.” Zinnemann died in March of 1997, eight months before the film’s release in the U.S.

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