The Jackal

(Michael Caton-Jones, USA, 1997)


Films about criminals with a talent for disguise form a rather hokey genre in popular cinema. From Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers comedies through to John Huston's The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) and The Saint (1997), both the appeal and the limitation of these movies is blindingly obvious. Their make-believe factor is much closer to the surface than usual – one is always judging how the actor (rather than the character) wears a wig or affects an accent.

For about its first half, The Jackal sits reasonably comfortably within this tradition. Bruce Willis is the Jackal – master of disguises, computers and super hi-tech military ware. Given the mission of assassinating an American public figure of his choosing, the Jackal begins a dizzy program of border-crossings, planting traces of fake identities and setting up pieces of his master plan wherever he goes.

This Jackal has a cold, cold heart. He kills anyone and loves no one. Director Michael Caton-Jones (Scandal, 1989) and writer Chuck Pfarrer (Hard Target ,1993) add one intriguing frisson to this old formula: a delightful scene in which Willis makes romantic moves in a gay bar – but only for the sake of his evil scheme.

FBI agent Preston (Sidney Poitier) must turn to the only person on the planet who can help him trace the Jackal – incarcerated Irish terrorist Declan (Richard Gere). It takes the film an awful long time to manoeuvre around to the moment when Willis and Gere finally lock eyes – an action which raises the temperature of the drama considerably.

The Jackal is eminently watchable, and contains several highly exciting set-pieces – especially a confrontation in a crowded train station that recalls the kinetic thrills of Kathryn Bigelow's Blue Steel (1990). Unfortunately, the film never explores the intriguing symbiosis between the Jackal and Declan – opting instead for the reassuring duality of absolute good versus absolute evil.

MORE Caton-Jones: City by the Sea

© Adrian Martin January 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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