On Thursday's Hugh Hewitt Show, Hugh and I discussed the fact that Hillary Clinton, as chief foreign affairs official of the United States, kept the global superpower's most confidential business on a server in the closet of a bathroom in some apartment in Colorado. I suggested to Hugh that none of the thriller writers he has on his show could get away with that plot twist:
MARK STEYN: You have Daniel Silva and people on and they go to immense lengths to concoct a plausible scenario as to how the security's breached. None of the other writers you interview â€“
HUGH HEWITT: (laughs)
MS: . . . Brad Thor, Daniel Silva â€” none of them would think of anything so obvious as the Secretary of State of a major global power keeping the important business of that nation on a server in some guy's toilet in Colorado.
HH: Yeah, Alex Berenson, Chuck Box, the late Vince Flynn â€“ they'd all have that sent back from the editor saying "No one's going to buy that. That's not going to work."
So I thought it would be fun, for our Saturday movie date, to find a thriller whose fictions are as ridiculous as the State Department's reality under Mrs Clinton. 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. 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's the First Lady. 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 â€” acclaimed author of Broadway Babies Say Goodnight â€” 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 â€” the dishwater blond hippie wig, the Canuck exporter's mop, the peroxide gay-disco look â€” 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. 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 French totty after having sex with her. Willis doesn't have sex with anyone and, given the trail a mile wide he leaves for the FBI, the Mounties, the SÃ»retÃ© du QuÃ©bec 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 â€” who else? â€” 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 â€” all those sallow, whey- faced, thin-lipped, dead-eyed types from the BBC evening news through the Seventies and Eighties â€” 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 â€” a naturally warm actor â€” in the IRA role, and Richard Gere â€” who can play a very cold fish â€” 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, QuÃ©bec and Pittsburg, New Hampshire was unmanned for 15 hours a day.