Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The 124 Minutes of The Jackal, Or: Bruce Willis and His Hair.

The 1997 assassination opus “The Jackal” just popped up on Hulu and I got so excited that I almost peed myself a little. Now let me be clear here: I have a whole lot of things I should be doing right now, but I just reorganized my to-do list and ranked everything in terms of its priority status and you know what seems to have ended up on the top of my list? Yeah, that’s right:

#1 Thing To Do: Watch “The Jackal”

For those of you not familiar with this cinematic marathon of Bruce Willis hair pieces, it would be my great pleasure to tell you about it!

First, the movie is loosely based on the 1971 thriller novel by Frederick Forsyth called “The Day of The Jackal”. I have actually read that book and it is actually pretty good. That is about a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. The hired assassin is a steely, calculating Brit who goes by the nom de guerre “The Jackal”. Forsyth took great pains to make everything about that novel as accurate as it could be, from the way The Jackal acquires a fake identity to the way that he meticulously researches his target. That’s the first part of the book, there’s another section that focuses on the manhunt to find and stop him. It’s all very fun stuff. It is worth noting that in the 1997 film the cost of a high-profile assassination is $70 million. In the book it was $500,000, or not quite enough money to buy you a one bedroom apartment in modern Manhattan. Inflation is a real bitch that way.

The film I am watching right now attempts to deal in some similar assassin methodology territory and does a pretty good job considering that it is a movie and doesn’t have as much room to stretch its legs as a novel.

But that’s not what makes this movie great.

The story was very much revamped for the late 1990s. The FBI is working in Russia with the MVD to combat organized crime, a Russian mobster’s brother gets killed during an arrest and in an act of way-over-the-top revenge, the mobster hires The Jackal to kill a prominent American (for most of the movie we aren’t 100% sure who he is supposed to kill). But that’s also not why its fun.

It is fun because the FBI here is embodied by none other than Sydney Fucking Poitier. Yeah, they somehow got Academy Award winner, Golden Globe winner, Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire Sidney “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” Poitier to be involved in this crapfest. And you know what he spends most of his time doing? Solving crime with Richard Gere! Oh yeah, did I not mention that Richard Gere is in it? Oh he’s so in it, playing former IRA sharpshooter Declan Mulqueen. And get this ladies: he has (when he remembers to do it) an Irish lilt. Charming and roguish, he agrees to help Sidney Poitier track down the assassin Bruce Willis on the promise that Sydney will help get him sprung from the American prison where he has been incarcerated for making “Autumn in New York” or something like that.

Interesting historical aside here: By the late ‘90s The Troubles in Northern Ireland had largely subsided due to a couple of ceasefires, but they would flare up now and again in the form of public bombings. There is a fairly dumb exchange in the movie wherein Irish Richard Gere (IRG) explicitly explains that he was a sniper and he was NEVER part of the IRA bombing campaigns, “THAT WAS NOT MY WAR!” he yells at Sydney Poitier who is busy collecting his check from the producers. This is interesting because in order for IRG to be our hero he needs to be absolved of all that blowing-the-legs-off-innocent-British-children stuff that the IRA used to do (or so says Hollywood screenwriting logic). For a marginally more nuanced version of Hollywood’s discomfort with the IRA check out 1994’s “Blown Away” with Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones, or for a surprisingly boring look at the whole issue watch 1997’s “The Devil’s Own” where Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt lovingly watch each other engage in some real ‘capital A’ acting. Come to think of it, you could also watch 1992’s “Patriot Games” also with Harrison Ford. In that movie Harrison Ford plays Tom Clancy’s American cross between James Bond and an accountant: the one and only former Marine Dr. Jack Ryan. “One and only” is a joke here because he has been played now by four actors (Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine) in a series of Clancy adaptations that have completely and inexorably fucked the timeline of the books so badly that for 2014’s “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” they just had to make up some new shit completely unrelated to any of the novels. I have not seen that one yet, but I will snap it up the moment it hits Netflix because I refuse to pay to see crappy action movie in the theater and because:

1) Chris Pine seems to be a capable actor despite being so good looking that I would like to see him get hit in the face by a bird while riding a roller coaster (Fabio reference!). I heard that his “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” was astoundingly good and, for better or worse, he does a pretty good Captain Kirk.

2) Kiera Knightley is in it and I - like everyone - have had a crush on her since “Love Actually”.

3) Kenneth Branagh directed it and I have apparently become a Kenneth Branagh apologist on account of he made the best Hamlet that anyone ever has, though he also made “Thor” and I don’t care what anyone says, that was just a dumb movie.

4) Kevin Costner is in it. Long-time readers of this blog know that I have a love/hate relationship with Kevin Costner. Actually, let me clarify: I LOVE to HATE Kevin Costner. He is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad actor, but he’s SO BAD that I can not tear myself away from him. He is - and I have never said this to anyone before - worse than Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio PUT TOGETHER. Those guys WISH they had Costner’s flat delivery and insufferable smugness. Like seriously, if you have not seen the Costner opus “The Guardian” then I insist that you stop reading this blog RIGHT NOW and go watch it. It is a drama about US Coastguard rescue divers and it also stars Ashton Kutcher. On Rotten Tomatoes it has a critic score of 37% and an audience score of 81%. It is one of those rare films where - when I saw it in the theater in 2006 - I was crying from laughter and the person next to me was crying because of how much it had touched her. We shared tissue but literally nothing else bound us together.

But alas, I need to start un-digressing here. First I will un-digress back to IRA movies.  If you’re actually interested in watching a useful movie about this stuff then go find the Liam
Neeson vehicle “Michael Collins” where he plays the man who started the IRA. For my money it is both a legit good movie and a pretty good primer for everything that would happen in Northern Ireland for the rest of the 20th century. Writer/director Neil Jordan (who also made “The Crying Game”) crafts some moments that still haunt me a little bit. It also stars Aidan Quinn (arguably the Chris Pine of his day), and Alan Rickman in a post-Die Hard/pre-Snape role that is surprisingly rich and nuanced considering how little screen time he gets. Julia Roberts is also in it. Remember how after “Pretty Woman” she was in a bunch of “serious” movies (I’m looking at you “Mary Reilly”, “Dying Young”, and “Sleeping with the Enemy”)?

I shall now un-digress back to the matter at hand: Bruce Willis’s hair.

As the international man of mystery known only as “The Jackal” he is very cautious and he changes his identities frequently as he globetrots and makes preparations for the assassination. One moment Bruce Willis is a suave jet-setting business man who speaks in a Don Draper-esque gravel. Other times he is a stringy haired blonde surfer dude. Sometimes he is a sweaty, bespeckled Canadian businessman. A few times he has kitten-soft, angel-like blonde hair that makes him seem as though he could be a cross between Patrick Bateman’s mentor and a Great White shark.

The absolute best though are the couple of scenes when The Jackal adopts a gay persona in order to seduce a mark in Washington D.C. That persona is played with such a smirk that it becomes so meta that it is like the whole point of filmmaking collapses for a second through some event horizon of what-the-fuck-is-going-on-here? Because we can’t tell if it is Bruce Willis having a little fun, or if it is the actor Bruce Willis imagining a stone-cold killer who thinks that he is doing his best gay impersonation, or if the character of The Jackal is actually releasing some homosexual subtext and so that smirk is actually some sort of pleasure. These are very complicated scenes, but in reality it is probably just Bruce Willis fucking with our idea of him the same way he did on “Friends” or in “The Whole Nine Yards” or in “Ocean’s 12”.

Now I do not know if the team in charge of Bruce Willis’s hair won any awards for their work, but I hope that they did. I would hate for this blog post to be the only place where they are honored.

After all of that, there isn’t much else to say about the movie. Irish Richard Gere’s love interest of sorts is a former Basque separatist. I know that Basque nationalism is a thing, but I always find it kind of silly. I always imagine them as the separatists that all the other world separatists just pat lovingly on the head and then ignore.

Pre-fame Jack Black is in the movie briefly and that makes me sad because I always go, “Oh yeah … I remember Jack Black. He was funny there for awhile, once.” (Take note Russell Brand and save your money.)

J.K. Simmons is in it too, sadly “The Jackal” was made before people knew how funny he is. He plays like an FBI agent or something.

There is a climactic and ridiculous scene at the end of the movie when The Jackal’s plot is finally assembled and he has what is basically a Polish anti-aircraft gun in the back of a minivan on a DC street and he is directing the gun by remote control using a laptop that is - get this - plugged into a cell phone! This was some whizz-bang shit back in 1997!  You also get to see Irish Richard Gere fast rope out of a Super Stallion helicopter and run around on rooftops with some heavily-armed Army guys, which is all silly and delightful in its own right.

Sidney “In the Heat of the Night” Poitier saves the target of assassination at the very last millisecond by dashing across a stage and tackling her just as The Jackal’s anti-aircraft gun begins shredding an entire building in a way that probably looked pretty apocalyptic to a pre-9/11 moviegoing audience.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away by telling you that Bruce Willis dies at the end of the movie. It is all but inevitable though because during the chase scene when Irish Richard Gere pursues him through the subway tunnels of Washington D.C., his otherwise unflappable blond hair has become disheveled. It is actually quite sad in a somewhat existential way, to see this iceman character of The Jackal sweaty and cornered and in need of a good mani-pedi. It is as if the spirit animal of his hair has abandoned him.

In the shockingly bad 1985 James Bond movie “A View to A Kill”, Christopher Walken played the villain Max Zorin who sported similarly spectacular blond locks and in an interview years later he said (I’m paraphrasing here), “That was my subtext in every scene. I would be saying my lines, but really what I was saying was ‘Do you like my hair?’.”  

And so - his hair all a mess - the Jackal dies there at the end of the movie and is later buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave near a landfill.

I would be remiss here if I didn’t mention that the movie “The Jackal” actually has a pretty good late-90s “electronica” soundtrack: Fatboy Slim and Moby just before they broke into the mainstream, a Goldie remix of the Bush song “Swallowed”, not to mention Ani DiFranco, The Prodigy, and Massive Attack, and a Black Grape song called “Get Higher” with samples from Ronald Reagan speeches.

The title sequence is also impressive. Basically it is like watching a three minute visual documentary that gives you a hundred years of Russian history. I think it was done by the same people who did the title sequence to “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, but don’t even get me started on that movie. I really have a lot to say about that one.

FUN FACT: It has taken me the exact 124 minute running length of “The Jackal” to write this blog post about “The Jackal”. Both I, and it, are done now.


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