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Top Guns

You're part of a team of Russia-based international bad guys that wants to knock off someone at the very top of the U.S. government. Who you gonna call?

The Jackal.
As personified by Bruce Willis, this assassin di tutti assassins is a rather tight-lipped psychopath with an alarming collection of multicolored hairpieces. Willis' trademark tone-deaf line readings actually work to his character's advantage; we seem to be in the presence of a highly advanced cyborg.

The Jackal isn't much -- it certainly isn't up to the 1973 Fred Zinnemann Day of the Jackal it loosely adapts and updates -- but it does offer the fascination of watching big-ticket actors attempt to spin their images.

Besides Willis, there's Richard Gere as a noble IRA terrorist (imprisoned in America) who harbors a personal grudge against the Jackal. The spin here is Gere's Irish accent, which is only a tad better than the one Brad Pitt massacred as the IRA terrorist in The Devil's Own. Either the dialogue coaches in Hollywood are getting paid too much, or they're not getting paid enough.

There's also Sidney Poitier as the FBI deputy director who releases Gere's Declan Mulqueen -- if you please -- into custody. Declan, it seems, once caught sight of the Jackal and could prove useful in hauling him in. Hire a thief to catch a thief. Poitier rarely appears in movies or on television any more, but whenever he does, as in HBO's Mandela and de Klerk earlier this year, it's something of an event. He has more grace and sinew than any other actor of his generation, and, like Brando, his once-in-a-blue-moon appearances should be encouraged -- even in tripe.

Another actor who doesn't show up nearly enough is Diane Venora, who is handicapped by playing a Russian intelligence officer with a borscht-thick accent, and, worse, performing with a really fake-looking Freddy Krueger-ish scar on her right temple. But Venora makes us forget the scar, and her accent is a damn sight better than Gere's. It actually sounds authentic. Venora's Valentina Koslova was probably conceived by Jackal director Michael Caton-Jones as some sort of cross between Lotte Lenya's Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love and Mata Hari, but the performance is fine-drawn and believable. With all the violence and mayhem on view in Jackal, her endangerment is the only one we care about.

It might have been fun if Gere and Willis had attempted some sort of double-track performance along the lines of what John Travolta and Nicolas Cage did in Face/Off. Because Declan and the Jackal are supposed to think so much alike, it might have given the film some psychological resonance if they also acted a bit alike.

But Gere's preening brooks no competition; he plays his underground operative like a celebrity terrorist. Willis, in contrast, opts for the hollow-man approach. His Jackal doesn't take much enjoyment from donning his various guises, unlike, say, Val Kilmer's title character in The Saint, who treated each costume change as a masquerade. It makes sense, I suppose, that the Jackal would look upon life as a grim charade, but the grimness doesn't do much for the audience. In Zinnemann's Day of the Jackal, Edward Fox's assassin had a livid, burnished charm that encouraged us to (guiltily) cheer his escapes. In Jackal we pretty much want to see Willis' character get caught right from the get-go.

There are a couple of effective scenes, especially the one in which the Jackal tries out his new remote-controlled Gatling gun and ends up using its inventor for target practice. You can see the carnage coming, but the expectation is part of what makes it scary. Elsewhere the predictability of the plot is a big yawn.

The Jackal also unwittingly raises another issue. With so many of these new-style terrorist action movies relying so much on computer wizardry, don't the filmmakers realize how dull it is to watch people hack away on their laptops? Even the greatest hero or villain ends up looking like a computer nerd.

The Jackal.
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Written by Chuck Pfarrer. Starring Bruce Willis, Richard Gere, Sidney Poitier, and Diane Venora