Dirty rotten terrorists

by Matt Frucci | 11/17/97 6:00am

'The Jackal' is a competent thriller. The acting is competent. The directing is competent and the writing is competent. But there is nothing spectacular or original in this cat-and-mouse thriller, it merely goes through the motions and eventually falls prey to its own contrived plot.

Loosely based on the 1973 film "The Day of The Jackal," this update follows The Jackal (Bruce Willis), an ice cold, precision-obsessed killer, through an assassination attempt. But whereas the original had The Jackal hunting a rather exciting figure, Charles de Gaulle, the new version has him after a far duller target, the Director of the FBI.

The film is noteworthy for joining two of the post-Cold War era's favorite plot contrivances together: the IRA and the Russian Mafia. The film opens with a "Seven"-esque credit sequence in which we see the fall of the Soviet Union. But the film has nothing to do with the former Soviet Union except to give us some ticked off Russian mobsters who hire The Jackal.

The only man who can identify The Jackal is imprisoned IRA terrorist Declan Mulqueen (Richard Gere). FBI agent Carter Preston (Sidney Poitier, who adds credibility to any role he takes) resorts to freeing Mulqueen to stop the supposedly unstoppable killer.

The rest of the film bounces between The Jackal setting up for his assassination attempt and Mulqueen somehow predicting where he will make his next move.

Willis, as the steely, brutal Jackal, stretches his range a bit with this role. It is the only Bruce Willis movie in recent memory where he doesn't start off down-on-his-luck and hung-over.

It is a little shocking to see Willis commit so many cold-hearted murders. Usually such a charismatic and likable actor, Willis has to turn all that off to become the laconic killer. He does a solid job in the role, but it does not fit the best of his talents. Gone are the wisecracks and smug smirk we have grown to love him for, he is a bad guy now.

Mostly, though, he parades around in various disguises (like Val Kilmer did in last Spring's atrocious "The Saint") and plays with cool gadgets and big guns while looking serious.

Gere broods as only an actor playing an IRA terrorist can. Actors and screenwriters never seem to care about the situation in Ireland, it is nothing more than a place to get stock characters. They usually quickly explain it away by having the character say something like "It's our war, you wouldn't understand." Point in fact, did anyone come out of "The Devil's Own" with a better understanding of The Troubles?

Hollywood just likes to have a character who is both deadly and noble, and being an IRA terrorist provides that. Gere's character fits into this mold. He pulls off an impressive Irish accent and there is no doubt he is the good guy, despite his murderous past.

He is given a love interest, Isabella (Mathilda May), and a reason to want The Jackal dead. Apparently, he and Isabella were set up by The Jackal and Isabella was shot, killing their unborn child.

The film is supposed to be a cat-and-mouse chase between the two, and on one level it works. As The Jackal gets closer and closer to the assassination and Mulqueen and the FBI get closer and closer to The Jackal, there is genuine tension.

But, unfortunately, Willis and Gere never really exchange any words. We are never shown the supposed seething hatred of the two like the great exchanges that made films like "In the Line of Fire" so exciting. Instead we have Gere's character miraculously guessing The Jackal's every move, then barely missing him.

Director Michael Caton-Jones ("Rob Roy") replaces substance with setting, hoping, like the makers of "The Saint" and "The Peacemaker," that globe-hopping from one country to another will carry his film over its weaker plot points.

But there are a few too many random plot twists throughout the film, and the ending is a bit ridiculous. Despite how hard it tries to surprise us, the film is endlessly predictable.