“The Jacket” is a high-art popcorn movie masquerading as something more meaningful. A massively disappointing stab at Hollywood filmmaking by Brit helmer John Maybury (the scintillating Francis Bacon biopic “Love Is the Devil”), pic begins as a potentially intriguing study of the depersonalizing effects of warfare, only to end up a pastiche of time-travel and psycho-ward movie cliches — a movie as lacking in personality as its amnesiac protagonist. All of which may matter little to a genre audience that, bamboozled by Maybury’s flashy style and Massy Tadjedin’s script, could turn this Warner Independent release into a sleeper March hit.
Shot in the head during the 1991 Gulf War, American soldier Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) is pronounced dead by Army medics moments before miraculously returning to life.
One year later, a physically recuperated Jack trudges along a snowbanked Vermont road, stops to help a disoriented woman (Kelly Lynch) and her daughter fix their broken-down truck, then hitches a ride with a passing motorist (Brad Renfro), who turns out to be a fugitive.
During a subsequent standoff with a highway patrolman, a gun is fired and Jack blacks out. When he wakes up, he finds himself on trial for the policeman’s murder. He is unable to remember what happened and is told that the woman, her daughter and the fugitive motorist are all figments of his imagination.
Found not guilty by reason of insanity, Jack is placed under the “care” of Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), a physician whose bedside manner rivals Joseph Mengele’s. Straightjacketed, doped up and loaded onto a mortuary slab, Jack is shoved into a claustrophobic body locker, where he experiences flashbacks to the violent events of his past. Only sometimes, instead of flashing back, Jack flashes forward, meeting the now-adult Jackie (Keira Knightley), the girl he helped on that Vermont road 15 years earlier.
At first, “The Jacket” suggests surreal films like “Shock Corridor,” “Johnny Got His Gun” and “The Ninth Configuration” — movies in which characters suffering from post-combat stress become tour guides through the absurdity and inhumanity of war.
In the pic’s early moments, Maybury effectively creates moods of creepiness and unease that help viewers to feel the world as Jack does. But by the time Jack and Jackie are bedding down with each other in the future while supposedly racing against time to prevent Jack from dying on a predetermined date in the past, Maybury’s pic has devolved into little more than a rip-of of Chris Marker’s seminal sci-fi short “La Jette” (and its official Hollywood remake, “12 Monkeys”).
Whereas those pics employed time travel as a way of addressing complex matters of fate and world events, “The Jacket” ultimately has as little interest in time as it does in war — all in the service of a seemingly over-audience-testedconclusion.
While “The Jacket” may impress some viewers as a mindbender on the order of “Memento” or “The Sixth Sense,” the only mystery here is what possessed the resolutely independent and avant-gardist Maybury to make a movie that’s more a triumph of style over substance than most mainstream Hollywood fare.
Script offers up a cuckoo’s nest of psych-ward eccentrics(think “G.I., Interrupted”) when it isn’t hurtling backward and forward. A subplot in which Jack takes time from his life-or-death journey to help a kindly lady doctor (Jennifer Jason Leigh) discover a cure for a seemingly retarded young patient is unnecessary.
Sticking to a game plan that served him well for his Oscar-winning role in “The Pianist,” Brody journeys through “The Jacket” with a look of shock and awe on his face, while most of the rest of pic’s stellar cast have similarly been given one note to play. Among the principals, only Knightley, doing a spot-on American accent and projecting sensitivity and warmth beneath her steely exterior, seems to be playing a character with an inner life. The chameleon-like Daniel Craig continues to impress in a scenery-chewing bit as a patient.
Technical package is highly accomplished, from Peter Deming’s crisp, wintry lensing to Paul Davies’ montage sound design and the frequent CG-enhanced dream sequences. Yet even here, the pic rarely breaks free from the well established sci-fi/horror genre mold.