One of the sadder aspects of recent revelations has been having to confront the glum reality that real-life national security capers are nowhere near as cool as their movie equivalents. For example, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton kept her nation's secrets in a server in some guy's toilet in an apartment in Colorado. I'd just seen Mission: Impossible 12 or whatever it was in which half the screen time is devoted to figuring out how Tom Cruise is going to break in to the secure computer facility. In real life, all you need is a plumber's get-up. I was doing some event or other out in Hollywood around that time and took the opportunity to re-enact the big scene from Cruise's picture but re-located to the sewer line to Server Boy's toilet.
Now we have the Christopher Steele "dossier". If Steele isn't on Putin's payroll, he ought to be. For it's hard to imagine in James Jesus Angleton's wilderness-of-mirrors heyday you could have distracted Washington half so easily with anything as ludicrous as this "dossier". So I thought it would be fun, for our Saturday movie date, to find a Russo-American thriller whose fictions are as ridiculous as the Steele fiasco. That's all but impossible - until I remembered a Bruce Willis remake from 1997, Michael Caton-Jones' The Jackal.
Back in 1971, it was The Day of the Jackal, a taut, forensic first novel by Frederick Forsyth that was brilliantly researched and hung its plot on real-life details such as a loophole in British passport security. Two years later, Fred Zinnemann turned it into a marvelous film with a chilling performance by Edward Fox and a magnificent supporting cast. In both the novel and the film, the Jackal is out to kill President de Gaulle.
Then came Bruce Willis in The Jackal. Both Forsyth and Zinnemann attempted to get the new filmmakers to change the name, but were unsuccessful. You can, though, see why they tried. The French president is no longer the target, for how many moviegoers of the late Nineties could even name the President of France? So now the Jackal has been retained by a shadowy Russian mobster to kill a prominent American: for most of the film, The Jackal pretends that it's about a plot to assassinate the Director of the FBI, but, in fact, it's perfectly obvious from the word go that the real target lies elsewhere. The Russians' Mister Big, furious that the feds have iced his brother, wants to make a bold gesture that the Americans won't forget.
So he calls in Bruce Willis, the newly Americanized Jackal. The film quickly establishes that he's an international contract killer. All the tell-tale signs are there: he maintains an account with a small, discreet bank in London; he has a post office box in Montreal; he travels on a Canadian passport. This is the usual shorthand of the genre, but I have to say it came as a bit of a surprise to me, since, for most of my adult life, I too have maintained an account with a small, discreet bank in London, operated a post office box in Montreal, and traveled on a Canadian passport. Of course, for a notorious international terrorist, I have a much better cover than Bruce Willis — acclaimed author of Broadway Babies Say Goodnight — but, on the other hand, I don't have the extensive range of bad hairdos Bruce can muster. On and off they come with bewildering speed — the dishwater blond hippie wig, the Canuck exporter's mop, the peroxide gay-disco look — until even Willis no longer seems very sure of what he's meant to be wearing with whom.
The fun in the film comes from seeing Willis as the master of disguise, expanding his acting range to encompass both a stolid Canadian businessman and a gay swinger cruising the bars. To be honest, he doesn't make much effort at a Canadian accent, except to add "eh?" to everything: "Charlie Murdoch, eh? Take another delivery, eh?" And, on the whole, his gay is better than his "eh?" He really gives his all in the gay-bar scene, caressing and stroking his pick-up, and planting a big wet sloppy kiss smack on the lips. With hindsight, I tend to agree with Zinnemann and Forsyth that naming the film The Jackal made it sound too much like The Day of the Jackal. They should have called it The Gay of the Jackal.
Bruce Willis, of course, is much too relaxed and likable to be the Jackal. One misses the icy chill of Edward Fox, clinically dispatching a bit of upscale franco-totty after giving her one final orgasm. Willis doesn't have sex with anyone and, given the trail a mile wide he leaves for the FBI, the Mounties, the Sûreté du Québec and everyone else, it's hard to believe he's managed to stay alive this long.
Nonetheless, to track him down, crack US agent Sidney Poitier and his Russkie counterpart Diane Venora are forced to yank a hardened IRA terrorist out of jail, because he's the only man alive who knows the Jackal's methods. Being a hardened IRA terrorist, he's played by — who else? — Richard Gere. From time to time, I toy with the idea of doing a lavish coffee-table book on Great IRA Men of the Movies. On the left-hand page, one would have the genuine article — all those sallow, whey- faced, thin-lipped, dead-eyed types from the BBC evening news through the Seventies and Eighties — and, on the right-hand side, we'd have Richard Gere, Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, etc. Admittedly, Gere is a touch more cosmopolitan than most IRA terrorists: he has a former sweetheart who's a Basque separatist from ETA. Until al-Qa'eda and all their vast Amalgamated Union of Lone Wolves came along, global terrorism was a sort of international dating circuit. But, as the Russian major puts it, "They say that the Basque live by the vendetta. If they hate someone, it's to the death. If they love someone, it's the same." So, in what passes for motivation in this story, Richard Gere has wanted to get even with Bruce Willis ever since they were in Libya and the Jackal shot the Basque babe while she was carrying the IRA guy's child. From the latterday jihadist sinkhole of post-Gaddafi Libya, it's hard now to recall that it was once the Covent Garden of international terrorism, with the Jackal, the Basque and the IRA man as the homicidal equivalent of those Italian tenors, French sopranos and German basses endlessly cruising the great opera houses of the world.
The Jackal suffers from a wee bit of directorial low energy. You never feel the crackle of real tension, and, by the time the Jackal fixes his actual target in his sights, you don't really care who lives or dies. The film would have made more sense with Bruce Willis — a naturally warm actor — in the IRA role, and Richard Gere — who can play a very cold fish — as the Jackal. But, even then, it's still best enjoyed as a lot of entertainingly pointless running around. For example, to cross the US/Canadian frontier, Willis goes to inordinate lengths, buying a boat and taking part in a regatta on Lake Michigan, all of which activity attracts FBI attention almost immediately. Wouldn't it have been easier just to drive across the border? At the time, the border post between La Patrie, Québec and Pittsburg, New Hampshire was unmanned for 15 hours a day. To be sure, they had a VCR recording crossings, but, the one time anyone checked, the tape had run out, and it froze up in winter anyway.
~If you disagree with Mark's movie columns and you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, then feel free to go full Jackal in the comments. Do please be respectful to fellow commenters, and stay on topic. Club membership isn't for everybody, but it helps keep all our content out there for everybody, in print, audio, video, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates.
We have further entertainment for you this weekend with another of Mark's series of video poems tomorrow, Sunday, and later that day an audio edition of Steyn's Song of the Week.
What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, aside from being a video poetry circle, it's also a discussion group of lively people on the great questions of our time: our next Clubland Q&A airs live around the planet this Tuesday. It's also an Audio Book of the Month Club, and live music club. We don't (yet) have a clubhouse, but we do have a newsletter and other benefits. And, if you've got some kith or kin who might like the sound of all that and more, we do have a special Gift Membership that includes your choice of a personally autographed book or CD set from Mark. More details here.