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'The Jackal': Fleeting Diversion

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 1997

  Movie Critic

Michael Caton-Jones
Bruce Willis;
Richard Gere;
Diane Venora;
Sidney Poitier;
Mathilda May;
Tess Harper;
James Michael McCauley;
Patrick Stewart
Running Time:
2 hours
Under 17 restricted

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"The Jackal" s painted – or more accurately, marketed – with broad but entertaining brush strokes. To enjoy it, however, you have to do the mental equivalent of squinting your eyes, so the credibility is only fuzzily ridiculous. You must also forget the immeasurably superior movie (1973's "The Day of the Jackal") on which it was based. And you must focus on its basest pleasures, such as Bruce Willis's ice-cold performance as the assassin at the heart of the story.

When an elite, mysterious killer (Willis) accepts a $70-million hit job on a high-up figure in the American government, an international good-guy team scrambles. FBI Deputy Director Carter Preston (Sidney Poitier), working with Valentina Koslova (Diane Venora), a Russian career officer, is obliged to spring imprisoned Irish operative Declan Mulqueen (Richard Gere), from jail. Mulqueen, who has met the Jackal and knows the tricks of his trade, agrees to help the coalition, provided he can see his old flame Isabella (Mathilda May), a Basque separatist. He also harbors the vague hope that his sentence might be cut or commuted. (You wonder where this Irish gunman and Basque separatist actually met – an international terrorism hoe-down in Tripoli?)

As the Jackal moves closer to his target (whose identity should be kept secret), Mulqueen and company do their frantic best to track him. But the assassin is a master of disguise – at least to anyone who can't recognize the star of "Die Hard" wearing silly wigs and mustaches. He's also a resourceful, ruthless opponent, who leaves no clues, switches passports at the drop of a hat and wipes out anyone who tries to cross him, such as the unfortunate gun designer who tries to blackmail him.

Inevitably, there's a showdown in a highly public Washington place, with swelling crowds, poised SWAT teams, that vulnerable target and, somewhere in the midst of all those movie extras, the deadly Jackal and his computer-operated Gatling gun.

What we have here is two expensive, headlining movie stars shoulder-barging their way through a flimsy movie that has been rewritten and rewritten – not to be a better story, but to make them look good. And to attract worldwide audiences to this race-against-the-clock story ("played out across a vast international canvas," as Universal Pictures' press notes put it), we have a mostly European lineup: an IRA agent, a Russian colonel, a Basque (played by an actress well-known in France) and a Russian mobster who orders the killing in the first place.

Although the finale (played in the usual non-Washington subway) is dumb and disappointing, even for a movie like this, Willis's tongue-in-cheek ruthlessness and his well-orchestrated plan are the main reasons to watch. When the aforementioned weapons manufacturer makes the mistake of putting the muscle on the Jackal, our mystery man trains his massive gun on the portly manufacturer. He orders the hapless man to run.

"I mean run – now," orders the Jackal, with the calmness of a man ordering from the wine list. The blackmailer, a Chris-Farley-like individual, hikes up his pants and bolts. Can you say rat-a-tat-tat, punk?

Personally, I couldn't forget Fred Zinneman's superb "The Day of the Jackal," in which assassin Edward Fox (hired by French right-wingers) travels to Paris to kill General de Gaulle, while an international consortium tries to stop him. Even though, in the harsh, cynical light of the 1990s, the dapper-suited, buck-toothed Fox suggests more of a dangerous upper-class twit than a psycho-killer. But the movie's measured, deliberate pace is far more riveting than this slam-bang celebrity show. You won't forget the old version, which is available in video stores, but the new "Jackal" will skulk out of your mind, tail between its bluntly constructed legs, way before you reach the parking lot or (further down the road) rewind the videotape.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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