Home Video Hovel: Jack’s Back, by Craig Schroeder
I’ve never understood James Spader’s sex appeal. He’s a handsome gentleman, sure, but he’s played enough slimy malcontents (Sex, Lies and Videotape, Crash, et al) that he could be chiseled from marble and I’d still see a conniving cretin. Then I watched Jack’s Back, a terrible film whose laurels rest solely on the charms of one James Spader. And now I get it; his erratic sex appeal and abject charm make Jack’s Back—an unwarranted and ill-conceived schlock fest—slightly easier to digest.
Spader plays twin brothers (though saying as much may be a spoiler, as the reveal of a sibling is a clunky twist that comes thirty minutes into the film). John Wesford is a doctor at a free clinic who spends his spare time advocating on behalf of the city’s homeless population (just in case you don’t know whom to root for) and his estranged twin brother Rick Wesford is a cigarette smoking former bad boy (“He was a member of the Aces street gang!”) now trying to turn his life around as a manager at a shoe store. When a serial killer begins raping and murdering prostitutes in the exact manner of the infamous Jack the Ripper (Jack’s Back, get it?!), both brothers find themselves embroiled in the case.
As time judges all things there are but three kinds of films: those that hold up, those that don’t and Jack’s Back, a film so of-the-moment it was dated by the time the director yelled “cut.” A conceited cash grab attempting to capitalize on the success of Brian de Palma’s string of early eighties Hitchcockian suspense films, Jack’s Back’s most prominent flaw is failing to convince the audience that the film is to be taken in earnest. Instead, it’s a self-serious regurgitation of every suspense film before it. But a movie shouldn’t receive admonishment simply for using techniques and styles of the time (looking at you, Michael Mann bashers), but Jack’s Back is a conspicuous eighties film using music, styles and motifs (hints of psycho-sexuality aplenty) without any context or second thought. Hey that worked in Movies X, Y and Z and people seemed to like it! (The soundtrack—an abhorrent fusion of synth and jazz—is a spectacle worth the gaper’s neck, specifically the pensive moments used as an excuse to shoe-horn in some of the more bizarre synthesized saxophone solos you’ll ever hear). When the plot finally kicks in (it stalls, sputters and restarts nearly a half-dozen times before the film settles into anything resembling a three-act structure) the film has already become a parody of itself, desperate to be taken seriously.
But despite all of its shortcomings, James Spader makes Jack’s Back watchable. He’s got a charm and dedication that elevates the film’s shortcomings. Acting parallel to some terrible performances (both of the film’s antagonistic characters are gnawing on scenery like a frozen piece of bubble gum), Spader does his best to neutralize the silliness. It isn’t entirely successful, as Jack’s Back remains an awful film, but Spader manages to mine the charm out of a charmless screenplay. And yeah, push come to shove, he’s a sexy dude.