Sunday 7 February 2016

Jack's Back (1988)

Director: Rowdy Herrington
Stars: James Spader, Cynthia Gibb, Jim Haynie, Robert Picardo, Rod Loomis and Rex Ryon
Never mind the Superbowl, which we celebrated by going to a party and not watching the game, instead sitting outside to chat away the evening in good company over good food and good drinks. 7th February also marks the birthday of James Spader, one of the most consistently interesting actors working today. I felt we should join in that celebration, so we came home to watch Jack’s Back, an underrated thriller from 1988 that marked the debut of Rowdy Herrington as both a writer and director. He’d learned in Hollywood as a gaffer or best boy, working on films as notable as Repo Man and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but got his break here and did well enough to follow up with Road House and Gladiator (no, not that one). A little later came A Murder of Crows, which is also worthy of note. While Spader was turning 56, hardly a round number, the film explored a centennial by having a modern day serial killer recreate the murders of Jack the Ripper in Los Angeles, each a hundred years on to the day.

We enter the film as the LAPD prepare to hopefully avoid the final murder, as the original Jack the Ripper was most likely responsible for the ‘canonical five’ deaths of prostitutes in 1888 around the Whitechapel area of London. Whoever is recreating these crimes in the City of Angels is interesting because he shows restraint in his brutal killings, not only by waiting for each centennial but by cutting up the bodies only to the degree that his mentor did, which means that the third victim wasn’t mutilated at all. ‘Jack’s Back’ is an unsurprising headline reporting on the case and we see a clipping of it pinned onto what is surely the wall of the killer. We don’t see who it is, of course, but there are strong indications given that it’s a young medical student named John Wesford, who works at Dr Sidney Tannerson’s clinic, pisses off his boss with an astounding level of calm and clearly has a strong interest in the pregnant hooker he sees at the clinic. We know from the police briefing that the last victim will be pregnant and murdered at home.
From the hindsight of 26 years, we would be forgiven for adding that Wesford is played by James Spader, because this is precisely the sort of role that he’d be interested in. Back in 1988, he was primarily known for a brace of TV movies and such uncontroversial features as Pretty in Pink, Mannequin and Baby Boom. Perhaps the only edgy film he’d made by then was Less Than Zero, from the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. It wouldn’t take long for him to move towards the less conventional, though; Sex, Lies and Videotape came next, which broke him internationally and won him a Best Actor award at Cannes. This was an interesting role for a few reasons. Not only does he play John Wesford, the cops’ best choice for being their new Jack the Ripper, but he also plays his twin brother, Rick. We don’t meet Rick until the exact moment that John is murdered, having walked in on the last victim and been attacked by the apparent killer. He gets away but not for long. He’s followed, strangled and strung up in a staged suicide.

Only Rick knows better, because he saw it, in a nightmare. The introduction of the twin is done superbly. When he wakes up in bed, we assume that the murder was just a dream, but he looks out of the window to see a growing number of police cars congregating. He walks down to the murder scene, lifts the cover from the corpse and sees... himself. Well, his twin brother, as we now realise. And because we saw what John saw, we’re now set up to think that the new Jack is really a man named Jack, a big bundle of brawn called Jack Pendler who works at the same clinic as John Wesford. Naturally, the cops don’t want to hear Rick, because why would they trust some guy’s nightmare when they have a logical suspect already out for the count. He’s left handed, he’s covered in the last victim’s blood and he worked at the clinic which turns out to link all five victims. They need to shut up the press so they call this case closed, leaving just Rick to follow up on his sure knowledge that his brother wasn’t Jack but was murdered.
I need to quit the synopsis at this point because there’s quite a lot going on in this script, an ambitious one for a first time writer, who would go on to direct more than he would write. On one level, it’s a serial killer story, even if we come in before the fifth of five murders and that one takes place almost exactly a quarter of the way into the picture. On another, it’s a thriller, with a man aiming to catch a murderer the cops don’t believe still lives (or, if he does, it’s actually him). There’s also an intriguing story in the twin angle. John and Rick weren’t close and there was little history of paranormal connections between them but, as Dr Carlos Battera, the consulting psychiatrist working with the LAPD on this case, knows, there’s more than one example of one twin seeing the other’s death at the exact moment that it happens, even from a distance. I also like the social element that creeps in at points, such as how the patrons of a pub look uneasily at Rick, when his identical twin is being reported as Jack the Ripper.

So the script is decent, though there are a number of plot holes that can’t be ignored, especially during a finalĂ© that clearly exists only to wrap up the various personal stories that have been building through the film; apparently we can safely ignore modus operandi at this point. Also, while the cops are treated with some respect, none of them cast in the standard LAPD thug stereotype, they’re also rather inept. With a case as prominent as this, you’d think they’d dot their i’s and cross their t’s before announcing the case is closed to the press and, given that they get it wrong, you’d think that they’d really make sure before they do it again. Rick does have a military background, so perhaps we can cut the cops who lose him so often a little slack, but I don’t see how to do the same with their bosses back at headquarters. After four murders that closely mimic the originals a century earlier, why don’t they have issues when number five doesn’t follow suit, given that she was given an abortion before being murdered?
The actors are decent too. Spader looks young, even though he had nine features, five TV movies and a TV show behind him, but he’s still more than able to flesh out two similar but different characters. Rick is a nice guy with a bad history, while John’s apparently a nice guy but might not be. Spader has no trouble depicting all of that and some of what he does is recognisable in more recent work, such as his ongoing performance as Raymond Reddington on The Blacklist; the early scene between John and Dr Tannerson, in which John is infuriatingly calm as he manipulates his boss into more and more emotional outbursts is textbook Red. Cynthia Gibb is the lady tasked with playing opposite both of Spader’s characters and she took a while to grow on me. She’s very wholesome with her perky nose, big glasses and trusting nature, and she’s easy on the eyes, so I can see why she’s in so many TV movies. I felt that she underplayed her role early on, but she grew on me throughout and had sold me on her performance by the end.
The supporting players are very capable and quite a few get the opportunity to get into their characters. Robert Picardo, always an underrated character actor, is excellent as Dr Battera, but Jim Haynie as LAPD Sgt Gabriel and Rod Loomis as Dr Tannerson do exactly what they needed to do and Rex Ryon is decent as the murderer of John Wesford who realises that he has to follow up with his brother Rick or risk being exposed. He’s large of body but small of mind without falling into the stereotypes that description might suggest. I should also call out Danitza Kingsley here, who doesn’t get much of a part as Denise Johnson, victim number five, but makes it her own and sells it absolutely, whether as a loud character raging out of Dr Tannerson’s office or a quiet one who regrets agreeing to an abortion even as she does so. It’s sad to say that her next film about a murder would be a documentary, which investigated the death of her ex-husband, ‘Good Time’ Charlie Minor, who was shot to death by a dumped girlfriend, Suzette McClure.

I really wish the ending hadn’t been such a cop-out because I was thoroughly enjoying Jack’s Back. The script kept me interested, the actors delivered well and the direction was interesting too. Right from the beginning, which unfolds to a third rate eighties rock song, it feels like a Michael Mann picture, just shot with a little less overt style and a little more grit. I felt that throughout, especially through the electronic score by Danny Di Paolo and the blue saturation used by director of photography, Shelly Johnson. It’s all very eighties and gets anchored there by the finalĂ© borrowing far more than it should from Manhunter, another very eighties movie that works well as a reference point for a lot of serial killer movies to follow. The ending doesn’t render the film not worthwhile, it just leaves us wondering why Herrington, who had done such a good job up to that point, couldn’t finish up his debut more effectively. It merely knocks the film down from underrated gem to obscure title that’s worth seeing.

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