Starring: Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale, Derek Jacobi
Rated PG (probably for Violence, Language and Nudity)
The idea behind "The Day of the Jackal," and its loose American remake "The Jackal," is solid. There is much suspense to be found watching a professional killer plot to assassinate a powerful man while the authorities race against time to find him. However, neither film gets the recipe right. Whereas the 1997 film (which Fred Zinnemann, who directed this one, begged the studio to change the title), substituted brutality and violence for suspense, the original opts for a more low-key, slow-burn approach. As is usually the case, the original is better, but alas, not by much.
After French president Charles de Gaulle grants Algeria its independence, a faction that resents the decision forms. Calling themselves the OAS, they plot to murder de Gaulle. The first attempt fails, so they decide to hire a professional. He doesn't have a name, but for the purposes of this assignment he elects to call himself The Jackal (Fox). Demanding a fee of half a million pounds, the OAS resorts to a string of bank robberies to pay it, which tips off the authorities that the organization is planning something big. Soon, it becomes The Jackal versus two cops named Lebel (Lonsdale) and Caron (Jacobi) who are on his trail.
The film boasts a solid opening and finish, but the middle is overlong and sluggish. Watching The Jackal prepare for the assassination has a certain voyeuristic pleasure, and the race to find him as he edges closer to his target generates some suspense. But the middle hour is so slow-going that even the most understanding viewer will lose interest. That the film falls into the trap of contrivance and general stupidity to move the plot along (and in one case, drag it out) only deepens the wound.
Due to The Jackal's skill with stealth and false identities, Zinnemann elected to cast a fresh face in the title role. In his view, this caused the less than stellar box office returns, but it led to an increased demand for Edward Fox. It's a strong performance; Fox is at different times charming, seductive, cunning and ruthless. The always reliable Michael Lonsdale and Derek Jacobi are equally good as his opponents.
The film also strikes the wrong note tonally. There's something too rigid, too formal, about how the film feels. It feels like it doesn't want to stoop to being a visceral movie so it keeps it all the emotions repressed. In a strange way, I was reminded of "A Fish Called Wanda."
There's a wealth of possibilities that are open with this premise, but it doesn't feel like Zinnemann takes advantage of them. For someone who is supposed to be this legendary assassin, The Jackal's methods are surprisingly ordinary. I mean, yeah, the gun is cool, but forging documents and identities feels routine. It's not so much what happens as how it's presented. It feels humdrum as opposed to sophisticated. Only in the final stretch do we see his true capabilities.
Someday someone is going to make a truly brilliant movie out of this premise. Sadly, it hasn't happened yet.