With its strong premise, a couple of fine performances and highly polished tooling, “The Jackal” scores as an involving high-tech thriller that occasionally hits peaks of pulsating excitement. Proficient without being genuinely inspired, and sometimes far-fetched in its plotting, this exceedingly lavish updating of a well-known novel and film stands as a solidly commercial male-oriented suspenser that, aside from two sci-fi epics, has the adult action field pretty much to itself from mid-November until the new James Bond opens a month later. International prospects could be even stronger.
Based officially on Kenneth Ross’ screenplay for the late Fred Zinnemann’s fine 1973 film “The Day of the Jackal” (and, through the absence of any mention in the credits, pointedly not on Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling novel), Chuck Pfarrer’s adaptation takes the central character, that of an ice-cold, perfectionist professional assassin preparing for an elaborate political killing, and positions it with adequate plausibility in a contemporary context.
Original novel and film dealt with an attempt on Charles De Gaulle’s life instigated by disaffected army reactionaries. Current outing opens in the new Moscow, where FBI deputy director Carter Preston (Sidney Poitier) joins with the Russians, led by intelligence officer Valentina Koslova (Diane Venora), in storming into a disco and nailing an important figure in the Russian Mafia.
In response, the criminal’s even more powerful brother declares war on the FBI and immediately hires the Jackal (Bruce Willis) to take out an unidentified top American political figure. The firm, calculated way the Jackal sets the terms of his employment says everything the audience needs to know about this cool customer: He demands $70 million for his services, will operate entirely alone, and will disappear forever upon completion of the job.
The Jackal’s solitary ways, skill with disguises and utter perfectionism make him exceedingly difficult to identify, much less to track, which forces the FBI to desperate measures when it learns that the assassin is probably gunning for the director of the FBI. The only people known to the agency who may actually have met the Jackal are a former Basque terrorist, Isabella (Mathilda May), now living quietly in Virginia, and IRA operative Declan Mulqueen (Richard Gere), Isabella’s former lover, now serving a long prison sentence in the U.S.
Initially balky, the Irishman is persuaded to help the American authorities, in part due to promises of future leniency and perhaps a bit due to the unstated but pronounced resemblance of Valentina, with whom he will be working closely, to Isabella.
As Declan gives Preston and Valentina whatever tips he can about the Jackal’s likely m.o., the predator himself methodically goes about the business of preparing his ambitious and intricate plan. Changing his look at every stop, the Jackal expands his array of phony passports in London, and in Quebec orders a custom-made computerized system with which to operate the enormous Gatling gun he will employ on his deadly mission.
Main body of the picture crosscuts between the stealthy activities of the Jackal as he moves ever closer to his prey in Washington, D.C., and the more anxious maneuvers of the FBI-Irish-Russian team. On balance, the former prove the more intriguing, in part because of the inevitable fascination that surrounds an implacable, diabolical criminal, and also due to Willis’ first-class work. The Jackal turns out to be an excellent role for the actor, who suggests an enormous store of implied menace, certitude and skill through astutely judged minimalist means.
Although Willis soft-pedals the thespian aspects of his various impersonations, he does have some fun with a few scenes. Most surprising and humorous is his cruising in a D.C. gay bar and kissing of a clean-cut pickup (Stephen Spinella), the relevance of which comes clear only much later.
The film’s above-the-title star power burns brightest when the Jackal and Declan come face to face for the first time; Willis’ and Gere’s stares and body language do virtually all the talking before the guns start blazing in the Chicago yacht harbor. The Jackal manages to elude the government’s net this time and he proceeds with his plan, but he knows from this point on that he’s being hunted, which inevitably affects his behavior and increases the chances that he’ll slip up.
Pic has not one but two action climaxes, one at the very public assassination site and a subsequent chase and shootout in the Washington subway. Director Michael Caton-Jones handles all the physical incident and gradual noose-tightening quite capably, even if most of the moves have been seen before and lack any real invention or originality. The film’s sporadic attempts to be stylistically edgy — the jagged “Seven”-ish opening credits, the spurts of aggressively metallic music — come off as affected, and there is a tag-along quality to much of what Gere is required to do that diminishes the interest in, and force of, his role.
Gere was clearly an odd choice to play an Irishman, and there are certainly any number of actors out there who would have been more plausible in the role. But this actually reps one of Gere’s least preening and self-absorbed performances, and he is not obliged to carry the film entirely on his shoulders.
Poitier is a pleasure to watch, but the film’s real standout performance comes from Venora. No-nonsense in a Russian military manner and sounding like Greta Garbo in “Ninotchka,” her Valentina has obviously survived many battles and shows unmentioned evidence of it in the disfiguring scars on the side of her face. The actress invests her character with courage, smarts and a force of will that prevails over her seen-it-all world-weariness, and the film comes most alive when she is taking an active role in the drama.
Location lensing in Moscow, Helsinki, London, Montreal and environs, Chicago, the Washington-Virginia area and the Carolinas provides the film with an enormous and colorful backdrop enhanced by Karl Walter Lindenlaub’s excellent widescreen lensing and Michael White’s varied and detailed production design. Willis’ disguises are amusing, and Jim Clark’s editing moves the action along at a fine clip.