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The Jackal and Mercury Rising (review)

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Two by Bruce

Bruce Willis has appeared in so many awful movies, playing so many uninteresting characters, that it’s easy to forget how fabulous an actor he can be in the right roles. (He won an Emmy in 1987 for TV’s screwball-comedy Moonlighting, fer pete’s sake, and deservedly so.) Amongst the Hudson Hawks and the Armageddons, there are films like Pulp Fiction and Twelve Monkeys that make you wonder how so talented an actor can get any creative satisfaction from something like The Fifth Element. Two recent Willis flicks show just how schizophrenic he is in his choice of roles.
The Jackal
Make no mistake. The Jackal is not particularly good. The most gripping part of the movie is the opening credits, which are simply awesome. Old Soviet propaganda films and Western news footage with a soundtrack of techno/industrial rock take the viewer from the good old days of the U.S.S.R. to the chaos that is Russia today.

The Jackal goes downhill from there.

Okay, get this: The Russian mob declares war on the MVD, a Russian military-type police force that is working to break up the crime organization — working in cahoots with the FBI. Now, what the FBI, which is a domestic American force, is doing in Moscow is anyone’s guess. The mob hires a renowned assassin called the Jackal (Willis) to kill… someone important, an American. We’re not privy to whom the target is.

The MVD and the FBI learn of the mob’s retaining of the Jackal — they guess the Jackal is out to snuff the director of the Bureau, and so begins the cat-and-mouse game of trying to find a killer that they don’t even have a picture of. So they spring from prison IRA terrorist Declan Mulqueen (a typically uncharismatic Richard Gere, doing a terrible Irish accent), who apparently knows someone who knows what the Jackal looks like. (Naturally, *yawn,* Mulqueen has a secret grudge of his own with the Jackal.)

The Jackal is unnecessarily convoluted and often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s almost worth watching for Willis’s performance. A master of disguises and shifting personalities, his assassin is, somewhat paradoxically, the film’s most mysterious and most interesting character. He is unapologetically bad, a shockingly cold-blooded killer — a sudden hardening of his gaze just barely precedes some sap getting blown away. And for a demonstration of Willis’s surprising range, watch for the scene in which he convinces a pickup in a gay bar that he has the hots for him. (Of course, the poor guy is destined to be an unwilling part of the Jackal’s machinations.) And the Jackal has a riveting moment with the kick-ass Russian cop Major Valentina Koslova (Diane Venora, also almost worth seeing this flick for) near the end of the movie.

Ah, but one or two intense performances do not a brilliant movie make.

Mercury Rising
Unfortunately, Willis’s next movie was Mercury Rising. I don’t think there’s an actor alive who could have saved this bombastic, hyperbolic, suspenseless piece of Hollywood tripe.

Art Jeffries (Willis) is an FBI agent of the loose-cannon school. “One of the best undercover guys we’ve ever had,” a colleague cries passionately. But after Jeffries screws up on an assignment (Jeffries had everything under control! It was his superiors who jumped the gun and let all hell break loose!), his boss tells him “the magic is gone,” and Jeffries is reassigned to scut duty, babysitting wiretaps.

But rogue that he is, Jeffries manages to insinuate himself into a case worthy of a multimillion-dollar motion picture. A nine-year-old autistic boy, Simon Lynch (Miko Hughes, actually not bad in a role that must have been tough for a little kid), breaks a top-secret NSA code called Mercury that has been planted in Games* magazine, as a test of its unbreakability. The kid broke it, so now everyone’s after the little security risk. Jeffries takes it upon himself to protect the kid from all comers.

Mercury Rising is so clichéd that it could have been called He’s Just a Kid, Dammit! You know that Jeffries really cares about the kid, dammit, because he can supernaturally sense danger approaching. Plus, he’s determined to protect Simon because in the screwed-up job that opened the movie, another kid was killed — the film hits you over the head with how haunted Jeffries is with black-and-white slow-motion flashbacks. This is Hollywood’s quick-and-easy approach to characterization — a horrible experience in the first ten minutes of the movie traumatizes a character and influences his every subsequent action. Previous life experiences apparently count for nothing.

When a script doesn’t leave much room for an actor to do his job, why bother with actors at all? Next thing you know, Hollywood will start casting, oh, I dunno, models and professional athletes to “act” in movies.

But that could never happen, right?

*Lemme tell ya, I used to work for the small company that published Games years ago, and it would have been a fantasy come true for those puzzle nerds to find themselves working with NSA spooks.

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