Jack’s Back

November 6, 2012

There are some halfway decent ideas on the loose in Jack’s Back, including the basic premise: that a modern-day killer would replicate the foul deeds of Jack the Ripper, 100 years to the day after the Ripper’s crimes. Thus Los Angeles becomes full of dread, waiting for the scheduled murders to take place.

Another good idea is that the movie very carefully sets up its hero, a medical student (James Spader), as a nice, kind, thoughtful fellow, and then lets him drop completely out of the film. His place is taken by a tough-guy twin brother (also played by Spader)—a bad seed who proceeds to track down the killer on his own.

Spader is a good actor (he usually plays creeps, such as the dope dealer in Less Than Zero), and he’s a large part of what make Jack’s Back watchable. Spader opts for a low-key intensity, which means when he’s at his angriest you can barely hear the words he speaks. It’s a useful role for an actor who is bound to break through at some point.

Elsewhere, the film blows hot and cold. Writer-director Rowdy Herrington, whose name almost rhymes with “red herring,” throws a couple of effective false curves into this whodunit. In fact, there are just enough obvious suspects to distract our attention from the logic lapses in the story’s structure.

Herrington isn’t exactly a great stylist, but the film bumps along at its own speed, and there are two or three genuinely scary moments, especially the long scene at a medical clinic where a murder takes place that shifts the film’s emphasis. Besides, Herrington had the good sense to cast Cynthia Gibb, one of the more intelligent of the young actresses, and to let Spader fashion a quirky performance that lingers after the rest of the film is forgotten.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

I guess sex, lies, and videotape debuted at Cannes a year later, so Spader’s breakthrough didn’t take much longer. This movie isn’t high on my list of things to re-visit, but it does sit well enough in that odd collection of late-Eighties nourish titles that aren’t great but do make a decent stab (you should pardon the phrase) at atmosphere.