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Killing the Killer

When last we glimpsed the ruthless international assassin known as the Jackal, 24 years ago, he was a dead ringer for the suave British actor Edward Fox and he was hot on the trail of Charles de Gaulle, armed only with cunning and a sniper's rifle concealed in a suitcase.

So much has changed, it's hard to know where to begin. For one thing, movie tickets no longer cost two bucks. For another, it's a good bet that seven-eighths of any audience down at the multiplex has no idea who Charles de Gaulle is. For a third, sniper's rifles in suitcases just don't cut it anymore on the Hollywood firepower chart. Neither do aesthetes like Edward Fox.

So, then. In The Jackal, a competent and conventional thriller that has no resemblance to its alleged inspiration, The Day of the Jackal, beefy Bruce Willis has been cast as the villain. His weapon of choice is now a $200,000, twelve-foot-long Polish-made cannon that fires withering hails of uranium-tipped shells by computerized remote control. His target now, we are led to believe, is the director of the FBI. His fee has also gone up: $70 million--half now, half later.

The fiendish charm of the 1973 original, based on a Frederick Forsyth potboiler and handsomely directed by the late Fred Zinnemann, lay in its obsession with the Jackal's detailed preparations for murder--from the brilliant variety of his disguises to the gathering of equipment to the precision of his every movement. Here was a cold-blooded artist at work, the Rembrandt of hitmen, and despite ourselves, we fell under his spell. Talk about the guilty pleasures of moviegoing: By the denouement, most viewers hoped Fox's sublime Jackal would knock off the French president and live to remain silent about it.

Suffice it to say that Bruce Willis fails to conjure up the same effect. We see Willis's Jackal with a rakish platinum buzz cut and we see him shaggy-haired in greasy workman's duds, affecting a limp and sporting a bushy brown mustache. Dressed in a double-breasted suit, he gains one strategic advantage by wooing a gay Washington businessman over martinis and (really now, Bruce!) kissing him full on the mouth. He can change the color of a getaway van as if by magic and switch accents like a linguistics champ. But this is still blunt Bruce Willis we're looking at, hopelessly miscast as a deep-thinking mercenary. Despite his ten-dollar cigar and a trunkful of wigs, he simply doesn't convince.

That's not entirely Willis's fault, however. In the quest to update things, Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy, Scandal) and writer Chuck Pfarrer (Hard Target) have not only junked up their remake with a lot of James Bondish gadgets and frantic city-hopping (Moscow! Helsinki! Montreal! Chicago! Washington!), they've also made the fatal error of shifting their focus away from an evil schemer hard at work and onto his far less interesting pursuers.

Clearly, these are meant to make up a kind of global Dream Team. There's FBI Deputy Director Carter Preston (stately Sidney Poitier), who speaks perfect Russian and moves pretty well for an old guy. The Berlin Wall is gone, so there's a Ninotchka-esque Russian major named Valentina Koslova (Diane Venora) who's great with her fists and a 9-millimeter and is rendered more glamorous, if anything, by a huge burn scar on one side of her face. Most fashionable of all, there's a dashing IRA freedom fighter/terrorist (take your choice) called Declan Mulqueen (Richard Gere, just back from China) who's been let out of jail to join the team because he's a tough guy and because he's the only one who's ever seen the Jackal. Never mind Declan's inevitable showdown with the Jackal: The real battle is between Gere and his new brogue, freshly installed by a dialogue coach.

Did I mention the gorgeous Basque separatist? Or the Russian mafioso who splits a wayward lieutenant's head with a battle ax?

All of them divert so much attention and draw so much energy from the villain that the people at Universal Pictures probably should have called the movie People Who Are Not the Jackal. Believe me, it's pretty hard to get interested in the assassin's pose as a Canadian fisherman when Poitier's rattling on about the call of duty like some fugitive from a Tom Clancy picture. How are we supposed to care about that deadly poison our man's sprayed on a trunk latch when Gere's going on about how he's a man of his word and will live no way but by his principles? By the third reel, what might have been a portrait of soulless evil has been reduced to standard cops-and-robbers fare full of chases and explosions and a few moments of real tension, featuring a bad guy far less interesting than, say, the lone madman who tormented Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire or the maverick Marine colonel in The Rock.

Sometimes the good guys are not the fascinating guys, and this is one of those times. Given a fighting chance, even Bruce Willis might have been able to sharpen his Jackal's fangs. As it is, he remains something of a bystander. "I want to strike fear into their bones," his mysterious employer tells him as he names the target. Fine. Then do it. Strike fear into our bones, too. Don't give us another crop of goody-goody government agents.

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