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The Day of the Jackal

The Day of the Jackal

I have mixed feelings about The Day of the Jackal. On the one hand, Iím a proponent of what I like to call The Evil Iceberg Theory (in a nutshell, the less we know about the villain, the better); on the other, the non-rhetorical question "who the hell was he?" ó made in reference to the antagonist ó is not exactly what you want to hear after almost two and a half hours.

Not knowing who the hell the Jackal (Edward Fox) is doesnít preclude the movie from spending an awful lot of time following his comings and goings, as he commissions a custom-made rifle from a gunsmith and fake identity papers from a forger, among other, so to speak errands ó and by 'awful' I mean awfully good.

This attention to logistic detail is what Frederick Forsyth, on whose novel the film is based, does best, and what made The Dogs of War (the book and the movie) so good. Here, however, there is a very faint yet not entirely imperceptible whiff of pointlessness to the procedings.

Take for example the Jackalís customized gun; it is, before we even see it, discussed at length, and the finished product gets a lot of well-deserved praised (the Jackal calls it "really excellent" and describes it as a "beautiful piece of work," and heís not lying) ó too bad, then, that the Jackal only gets to shoot (and hit) a watermelon with it (though the way he calibrates the rifle, adjusting the scope until itís just so, is a neat little touch).

I wasnít expecting him to actually blow Charles de Gaulleís brains out (for that, weíll have to wait for a hypothetical Tarantino remake), but to put it in perspective, letís consider the 1997 version, simply called The Jackal; in it, Bruce Willis tests the gun on the man who made it, killing two birds with one stone ó not only does he eliminate a potential witness, but also a would-be blackmailer (the filmmakers wisely and economically conflate the gun-maker and the extorting document forger into a single character), and on top of everything, by using the weapon on an actual human being, he makes sure we know that the stakes are really life-and-death.

The other, bigger problem with The Day of the Jackal is that itís bookended by fits of surreal, almost pythonesque humor thatís not comic relief (when itís done well, comic relief never feels out of place, regardless of the setting; see The Exorcist III) because it occurs at the very beginning (the leader of a terrorist organization claims "No French soldier is going to raise his rifle against me;" cut to his death by firing squad) and the very end (de Gaulle inadvertently dodges the Jackalís bullet when he leans forward to give some rather short guy the traditional French double cheek kiss), when thereís either nothing to relieve or you want to keep the tension tightly wound.

The latter bout of unintentional comedy is especially damaging; all the time that the film has spent building the Jackal up now kinda seems like a waste of time, because the last thing the movie does is make him look like a jackass (not that he needed a lot of help in that department; when being offered the job, he says "It would be more difficult than most targets ... Because De Gaulle has the best security in the world," but two minutes later heís confident he "will have the cooperation of De Gaulle. He won't listen to his security service and stay out of the public eye." So, which is it?).

All things considered, maybe they should have called this The Day of the Jackass; either that, or The Day of the Red Herring (suffice it to say that Charles Calthrop is not an anagram of 'Chacal', French for 'Jackal' ó and since everyone in France speaks English for some reason, they do have to clarify that thatís indeed the French word).