A bold attempt at a comedy-thriller set in the near future in Belfast, this first feature from David Caffrey shows plenty of promise and chutzpah, but veers wildly in tone from sweet romantic comedy to bloody thriller and back again. Given that what’s happening in Northern Ireland isn’t exactly to be taken lightly, it’s to be expected that, in the U.K. at least, pic will face a mixed reaction.
In other territories, including the U.S., “Jack” can probably be enjoyed as a mostly entertaining man-on-the-run adventure, and as a solid vehicle for the talented David Thewlis, who plays an irresponsible journalist out of his depth when he becomes involved in a politically motivated murder. An ad campaign featuring Aussie thesp Rachel Griffiths as a gun-wielding nun wearing garter belt and fishnet stockings should prove a come-on — especially on video labels — but is misleading in that Griffiths’ role is little more than a cameo, albeit an immensely enjoyable one.
Pic, which takes place in 1999, unfolds against a background of a hard-fought political campaign for the new post of prime minister of Northern Ireland. Front-runner Michael Brinn (Robert Lindsay) is running on a peace ticket, and is opposed by hard-liners on both sides. This political background is clarified through the character of visiting Boston Globe journalist Charles Parker (Richard Gant).
Thewlis plays Dan Starkey, a newspaper columnist who doesn’t take his work too seriously, who drinks too much and whose wife is beginning to object to his behavior. One evening, drunkenly making his way through a city park, he meets the attractive Margaret (Laura Fraser) and soon finds himself spending the night in her loft apartment. Next day he returns to find her expiring from gunshot wounds. Her dying words, “Divorcing Jack,” prove to be a clue to the motive for her murder.
In classic tradition, Starkey finds himself on the run and wanted for the murder he didn’t commit. In a weird moment of black comedy, he accidentally kills the victim’s mother when he collides violently with her on the stairs as he makes a getaway. But this tragic incident is glossed over and not referred to again, which is typical of the film’s cold-blooded attitude toward death.
Parker endeavors to help his friend, but all too soon is himself a victim of rival forces trying to locate the vital evidence for which the unfortunate Margaret was murdered. Griffiths appears in a brief but spectacular role as a nurse temporarily dressed up as a sexy nun; she comes to the rescue when Starkey — who takes a great deal of punishment during the course of the film — needs urgent medical attention.
Colin Bateman’s screenplay, based on his novel, covers a lot of ground, but could have been tidied up for the screen. On a political level, the film is naive and simplistic, but as a comedy thriller it has plenty going for it, not least the amusing, charged central performance of Thewlis as the diffident innocent who finds himself involved in nasty business. Fraser makes a tremendous impact as the delectable Margaret.
Caffrey’s direction extracts the most of this material, though a reprise of significant images from the film at the end (presumably designed as an aid to slower members of the audience) is a mistake. James Welland’s photography makes a strong contribution.