Phil swears his interest in JACK’S BACK had nothing to do with small roles from Robert Picardo and John Harrison, faves of Dante and Romero. He suggests you check it out on Netflix Instant to see James Spader do some of his best acting.
I’ve always appreciated James Spader. In a multitude of 80s flicks, he played the smarmy dick with a relish that made his characters stand out from the stock roles they probably should have been. Whether in MANNEQUIN, PRETTY IN PINK or WOLF, I could always trust him to bring an edgy performance to an unlikable character. So when I saw that Netflix had added 1988’s JACK’S BACK to the Instant, I was curious to see if he maintained that streak. Oddly, he starts off playing a benevolent med student. But everything is not what it seems, and later he gets to play things edgier; still not a dick, a heroic character in fact, but more in line with his other roles. In doing so, the talented actor is the best thing about the flick. JACK’S BACK is a sleazy little affair that aims much higher than it delivers, but it does showcase Spader at his peak, bringing layers to a character that might have failed in a lesser actor’s hands.
The film picks up at the 100th anniversary of the last of the five Jack the Ripper murders. Forensic psychologist Carlos Battera briefs the police force on what type of woman she’ll be and how she’ll be killed. We then meet John Westford, a kindly med student working with the community to help the homeless. When he arrives at work, a woman fitting Battera’s exact description is arguing with Dr. Sidney Tannerson, who runs the free clinic. When he threatens to fire John, Tannerson reveals just what a low opinion he has of his clientele. After looking at some plot revealing pictures at home, John realizes who the next victim will be. When he tries to stop it, he shows up too late. An altercation occurs between him and the potential killer, which spills back to the clinic, where the other man murders John.
Or does he? When Spader’s character wakes up in bed, it seems the whole thing was a dream. But things get much more complicated from here, and to tell you any more of the details would spoil the film for you.
JACK’S BACK is all about the twists and turns I can’t discuss. Though the fifth murder is in the books, the threat isn’t over for any of the characters, as the killer is still running around. The police are useless, as they ride a merry-go-round of blame, and can’t catch anybody who might actually be the killer. It’s up to Spader’s character, a suspect himself, to figure it out with the help of 80s cute doctor Chris Moscari. Even when the film appears to be over, there’s about 15 minutes to satisfy one more twist. Though to be fair, it’s not really a great one, as anyone who’s been paying attention will have figured out who the new Jack was from the start.
I was surprised that the film would pick up on the eve of the fifth recreated murder, mere hours before it goes down. The Ripper conceit closes off almost entirely after the first act (with the exception of a few references to left handedness and smoking throughout), and it would probably have provided a much better structure had the film started with the first murder, or even the third. Or even if it had dismissed the whole Ripper idea from the start. According to the IMDB, the title was originally supposed to be RED RAIN, though I gather it would’ve had the same plot. In any event, the finished product is an example of what could have been, and missed opportunities.
It does provide a quintessential 80s feel though. Characters smoke everywhere, Spader spends much of the flick with gelled out hair, and Cynthia Gibbs looks like someone who should’ve dated Alex Keaton on Family Ties. There are fast chases with expensive cars, and a Michael Mann Miami Vice feel to the streets. This is also a sleazy little film, from its opening scene in the fog filled alley that stops on a freeze frame of a screaming prostitute, right down to its closing moments. Writer-director Rowdy Herrington’s shooting style is gaudy, with the camera often acting as the predator’s view, and fits the grimy tone of the film like a glove. His script relishes in undertones of brutality, with that slick 80s veneer riding over it. None of this should surprise me, given he directed Patrick Swayze’s cult hit ROADHOUSE.
But then there’s Spader to redeem it. He takes his role to places it probably wouldn’t have gone with another actor, adding nuances and tics that push it worlds above stock. If I ever wanted to prove James Spader is a talented actor, I would just point out his performance here. Spader played a lot of second hand roles, taking a back seat to the Rob Lowes of the 80s. That’s a shame, because he had a lot to offer and excelled as smarmy dicks. It’s nice to see in the last decade he’s become a staple on popular TV, and acts on Broadway.
JACK’S BACK is a sleazy little thriller that could have been a lot better than it is, had it taken its opportunities. But it’s got a lead actor in Spader who rises above the source material and gives a marvelous performance. For that alone, it’s worth a watch.