In The Jackal (UNIVERSAL), Bruce Willis plays an ice-blooded assassin who’s a master of disguise — he looks as if he frequents the same moustache-and-toupee shop as Val Kilmer’s Simon Templar from The Saint. In one scene, he appears as a paunchy deliveryman, complete with mussed hair and worker-nerd spectacles. Moments later, he’s a laid-back hippie fisherman, then a sleek Euro-ponytailed model out of an Armani magazine spread. Willis’ genius hitman, who is known only by his lethal alias, the Jackal, has been hired by a Russian mobster to assassinate a pivotal figure within the federal government. The Jackal puts on his disguises, of course, in order to cloak his identity. Watching the film, though, we rarely feel that Willis is donning those elaborate hairpieces because of any specific situation he’s in. Rather, the movie seems to have dropped him into the situations mostly so that he can wear the hairpieces.

Impersonating a closeted swinger, complete with suit and ”debonair” leer, the Jackal flirts with an eager pickup at a gay disco, all to establish a possible future hiding place. Later, cashing in on his ruse, he shows up at the fellow’s house, only now, for some reason, he’s in a completely different disguise (killer black T-shirt, platinum dye job). What, exactly, is his strategy? Did he lose the original costume? Or is it that the filmmakers have lost touch with their material? In The Jackal, Willis’ rotating identity isn’t woven into the narrative, developed as drama, sustained as thriller gamesmanship. It’s just a tease, the hollow emblem of a movie that’s all dressed up with no place to go.

The Jackal is a trashy, frenetic remake of Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 The Day of the Jackal, a fascinatingly deadpan Continental manhunt thriller that served up its trickery and disguises with a fair degree of sophistication and wit. As the Jackal, Edward Fox, with his ascots and his Oxbridge pout, managed to suggest George Plimpton as a sociopathic James Bond. He was ruthlessly intelligent but never superhuman.

In The Jackal, Willis certainly knows how to play ruthless; he turns his smirk into a wink of murder. In the film’s most entertaining sequence, he tests out his new superweapon, a machine-gun cannon operated with a remote-control laptop, by using the doofus stoner who designed the gun mount for target practice. Here, and in a few other scenes, director Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy) expertly showcases the Jackal’s pragmatic viciousness. At the same time, we’re never allowed to enter the Jackal’s mind; the film fails to inspire the naughty tingle that comes from identifying with a master criminal. Instead, we’re given a noble, ”impassioned” hero, jailed IRA terrorist Declan Mulqueen (Richard Gere), who is recruited by the FBI’s deputy director (Sidney Poitier) to help catch the Jackal. Gere puts on a serviceable Irish accent, but he never acts like a militant Irishman. He’s too smarmy and pleased with himself, and the role is so underwritten that the film goes to sleep every time it cuts to another glum anti-Jackal strategy session.

The Day of the Jackal was, itself, hardly a classic, but it knew how to summon elegant suspense from the power of understatement. The Jackal, mired in blood and cheap shocks, in a network of random improbability, inevitably pushes in the opposite direction: It buries the audience in sensation. Even the assassination climax isn’t climax enough. Instead of the tricky cat-and-mouse sequence we’ve been primed to expect, we get an orgy of firepower, followed by an endless chase through the subways — a series of suspense ”heighteners” as jacked up as any B horror film. The Jackal himself dies hard, all right (doesn’t Willis always?). Apart from his wigs, though, he really has no identity at all, and neither does the movie. C

The Jackal
  • Movie
  • 112 minutes