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A review of "Jack's Back" (1988)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Jack's Back is one of those fun movie-land thrillers where characters do things they would never do in real life, but which make total sense in the context of a low-budget action movie.  There's nothing especially original or unique about it, but it moves quickly and keeps you engaged the whole time.  Plus you've got 1980s James Spader alternately being noble and vengeful, and he's always a good time.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The Bit Where I Summarize the Plot

John Wesford (James Spader) is a young and motivated do-gooder doctor who works at a free clinic in Los Angeles.  He's possibly going to begin dating his coworker, Chris (Cynthia Gibb), and was recently featured on a news broadcast as part of an effort to bring attention to the plight of the homeless.  Things seem to be going pretty well for him despite the fact that his boss is an asshole.

Unfortunately, two things are about to go terribly wrong for him.  First, there's been a string of copycat murders lately that have been inspired by the 19th century Jack the Ripper killings.  Second, one of his ex-girlfriends recently appeared at his clinic in search of an abortion.

John tries to meet up with his ex later that night at her place.  When he opens her front door, he finds her murdered - and his creepy coworker, Jack (Rex Ryon), is lurking around with blood on his hands.  Jack insists that he didn't kill anyone.  He was here to perform an abortion (granted, it was still illegal), but that was all.  She was murdered when he stepped away.

John is understandably skeptical and tries to call the police as Jack runs away.  John gives chase - which is probably the first nonsensical choice a character in the movie would make, since John clearly knows who Jack is and could provide his information to the police if he would just wait and call the cops.

Anyway, since the plot can't progress if he doesn't act like an action hero, John chases Jack to their clinic where Jack continues to profess his innocence.  And how exactly is he going to prove to John that he's not a murderer?  Simple: by beating and then strangling John to death.  Naturally.

When the police descend upon John's body the next day, they find a forged suicide note implication John in the murders.  They conclude that there's sufficient evidence to link John to all of the open cases, so they hold a press release announcing that they've caught the copycat killer.

This news comes as a comfort to everyone... except for John's identical twin brother, Rick.  Y'see, while John was being killed, Rick woke up in a panic.  He witnessed John's death in his nightmares and is the only one who believes (knows?) that John was murdered and framed.

With nobody else on his side, Rick is the only man who can find the real killer and clear his brother's name.

The Bit Where I Get Confused About Character Motivations and Legal Ramifications

Jack's Back is one of those misplaced heroism movies where the protagonist really has no good reason to take it upon himself / herself to try to save the day, but they do it anyway because otherwise there's no movie.  See also: Big Trouble in Little China, in which Kurt Russell helps Dennis Dun rescue his girlfriend from a human trafficking ring despite the fact that neither one of them has any training or authority that would help them.

You would think that this hurts the movie, but as it turns out, a lot of charisma and some good direction will let you forget all about pesky things like rules or jurisdiction or obstruction of justice.  Rick's quest to avenge his brother's murder seems somehow totally believable in the moment.

The movie does try to explain this away to some extent by setting up John as a framed murderer.  Initially, Rick's motivation is purely to clear his brother's name, which is as fine a catalyst as any to get him embroiled in the seedy criminal underbelly of the city.  But once he introduces a seed of doubt in the investigation - which happens fairly early on - he should be willing to step back and let the police do their jobs.  Especially when he becomes the target of a murder plot himself.

But no, Rick puts on his P,I. hat and has some fun with it, anyway.  Which is, as I mentioned, fine; after all, the movie's still fun.  But it does raise in interesting follow-up question.  Why don't the cops arrest him once they catch Jack?

It's not like Rick has been cooperative with him at any time during the investigation.  They were trying to bring him in on multiple times for questioning and he's committed a variety of additional crimes while evading the police, including breaking and entering, vandalism, illegal possession of a firearm, illegal purchase of a firearm, reckless driving, and probably a couple dozen others that I didn't even notice.

Instead, once Jack is apprehended, the cops just give Rick a cup of coffee and say, "Nice work, buddy.  Get some sleep."  Then he's out the door and free of any post-vigilante paperwork.

(Ironically, today we would have very much the same arc and conclusion in a movie, but we'd accept it without question because Rick would probably just be a superhero.  Strange that as long as you have some supernatural power and dress like a dipshit, nobody questions you.  I guess nobody wants to get close enough to get secondhand crazy on themselves.)

I'm at a loss to explain why movies don't have protagonists like this very much anymore.  Ever since the glut of shows like CSI or Law & Order, it seems like protagonists and audiences alike are forced to be hyper-aware of the boundaries of the law and investigative practices.  Maybe we're just so terrified of the police that we don't want our heroes to be in any danger from the Law once they finish overcoming the Crime.  Maybe this is all part of an overall trend toward a more obedient and fearful society.  Whether that's good or bad I won't get into right now - that's just a whole mess of complicated issues that I don't feel like unraveling while writing about a 1988 Spader vehicle.

The Part Where I Enjoy Rick's Incompetence

Something that you get when you make a movie about a non-cop / non-detective trying to do a cop / detective's job: they're not actually all that good at being a hero.

Rick never actually has a plan or really any kind of idea of what he's going to do.  He makes things up as he goes along and he fails constantly.  It's actually quite refreshing.  Earlier I made a throwaway crack about the glut of superhero movies, but superheroes are actually a pretty huge problem when you're trying to come up with an engaging action movie.  The "super" part of a hero is always so disappointingly bland that it makes even a plain, unoriginal thriller like Jack's Back stand out - the protagonist is just so utterly human.

Frankly, Rick is kind of an idiot.  His first move is to go to the clinic where John worked to try to get some clues.  He gets yelled at by John's boss and is told to leave.  What does he do?  He gets angry... and leaves.  That's it.  No progress.

Okay, so, now what?  Well, fortunately, Chris wants to help him.  She offers to go to a bar down the street after work and chat with him.  Rick waits outside of the clinic for the next 4-5 hours until Chris's shift ends - no reason for him to try to do anything else because he doesn't have any other ideas.

When Rick gets the chance to talk with Chris, what information does he gather?  Nothing.  Not a damn thing.  He barely even interviews her.  They make small talk for about three minutes before he feels awkward and has to leave.  Everything he does is half-baked and largely ineffectual.

Hell, Rick can't even make weapons seem intimidating.  At one point, he sneaks into his apartment to grab a revolver he has stashed away.  Then Jack sneaks up on him and they fight.  Jack steals the revolver effortlessly - he's like a foot taller than Rick and probably a good sixty pounds heavier.  (Add "fighting" to the list of things Rick's bad at.)

Rick manages to escape, but he's still hung up on the gun thing.  So he goes off to a seedy nightclub to purchase an unregistered revolver from a sleazy dude in a backroom.  He is unable to afford any bullets.  But that doesn't deter him - eventually Rick breaks into Jack's apartment and confronts him with his unloaded revolver.  Then Jack takes out the loaded revolver that he stole from Rick earlier, and they get into a fight.

All of this amounts to... nothing!  The guns don't really pay off.  There's a brief but completely inconsequential moment where the two guns get mixed up, but otherwise there's really no reason to spend any amount of time on them.  You could have taken them out of the story altogether and just had a lead pipe fight between Rick and Jack with the same outcome.

It might sound like I'm being critical of this, but in fact, I actually dig it quite a bit.  Rick is a frail guy motivated purely by his anger. Whatever heroism he does exhibit is more a nasty compulsion brought on by relentless discomfort and less because of any actual capability or ethical code to do good in the world.  He's an interesting protagonist precisely because he's so uninteresting.  He's a lot like Kurt Russell in Breakdown, one of my favorite thrillers.

Hey!  Two Kurt Russell references in one review.  Now, if only there was some way to tie all that together....

...oh, shit.  I think I just found my thesis statement.

The Bit Where I Direct You to Youtube

Yeah, this one's on Youtube, too.  Like all the other movies I review.  In my defense, though, I actually watched it on Netflix Instant, so at least this time there's the pretense of legality.