Jack’s Back reminded me of the late Roger Ebert’s oft-quoted saying “it’s not what a film is about, but how it’s about it.” With plot ideas from jarringly different sources, the film should seem indecisive about its intentions. But writer-director Rowdy Harrington clearly knows the clever plan by which all these pieces fall together; his intention isn’t transcending the genre so much as toying with the audience’s expectations of it. Jack’s Back has a serial killer, a murder mystery wherein you immediately see whodunit, a man wrongly accused, memory-inducing hypnosis, and psychically linked twins, one of whom not only is the victim in the aforementioned murder, but also may be the serial killer. There may be too many ingredients, but the pleasure of the film comes from watching how this genre jambalaya cooks.
Nineteen eighty eight has its hands all over the film: moonlight pours through the slats in open blinds, illuminating the smoky interiors of buildings; people have mullets and the remnants of Joisey hair; a dreadful (even by 80’s standards) rock song blasts across the opening credits, followed later by a synth-heavy score replete with lonely saxophone solos selling sex. Unlike most ’80s slasher movies, the sex stays on the soundtrack, but Jack’s Back succumbs to that genre’s penchant for the “it’s only a dream” sequence. How Harrington handles this familiar trope is the film’s biggest and most ingenious surprise.
Dr. John Westford (James Spader) works in a Los Angeles clinic, and the film quickly establishes him as the hero who may come into his own before fade out. An activist for the downtrodden, he treats prostitutes and the homeless while dodging the angry verbal lashings of his boss, Dr. Sidney (Rod Loomis), who’s so over-the-top mean to his patients that his demeanor shouldn’t go unnoticed by sharp viewers trying to piece together the film’s narrative puzzle. By comparison, Dr. John is sweet and innocent in ways Spader could still get away with this early in his career. For example, when John’s co-worker, Chris Moscari (Cynthia Gibb), propositions him for dinner and perhaps a nightcap, John bashfully declines in favor of working late.
Someone is offing the clinic’s prostitute patients by recreating Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel killing spree, and one murder is left to cement the killer’s copycat status. Knowledge of the original murders, which occurred a hundred years prior, leads the cops to believe the suspect to be a doctor; they also know the details of this upcoming murder, though they have no clue as to the victim’s identity. “We know she’s going to be pregnant,” a cop tells us.
When a pregnant prostitute visits the clinic, and is mistreated by Sidney, John is noticeably interested in her; in fact, he’s way too interested. Only Sidney’s bellowing keeps John from pursuing her after she leaves. When she becomes the Ripper’s latest victim, and a witness identifies John leaving the scene of the crime, he becomes the prime suspect. The viewer knows, however, that John arrived post-murder, discovering his blood-splattered colleague, Jack Pendler (Rex Ryan), at the crime scene. When Pendler claims innocence, our hero dashes back to the clinic to call 911. Pendler follows John and brutally murders him, arranging his body to look like a suicide.
Barely 20 minutes in, John’s murder pulls the rug from under the viewer in Psycho-like fashion. As we contemplate what could possibly happen now (the hero is dead and the killer’s been identified), Jack’s Back pulls an even bigger prank: John suddenly wakes up in bed grabbing his neck. We’ve been had! It’s only a dream!
As John gets out of bed, Harrington’s camera remains focused on him, inching closer as John shakes off the terror of his nightmare. It takes a moment to realize that something’s odd about John. Spader is on screen, but the camera waits patiently until we notice that the actor now has an earring, a stronger build, and a spikier hairdo. In the moment of revelation, Jack’s Back cancels the “It’s only a dream” scenario and thrusts us into another mystery. John Westford really is dead, and has been replaced in the story by his identical twin, Rick, who gets to the clinic just as John is being shoved into the county meat wagon.
Since a witness placed John at the scene, the cops assume they have their now-dead serial killer and close the case. Rick doesn’t believe his brother is guilty, thanks to some Corsican brothers-style psychic link between him and John. (The film represents these in jarring, violent jump cuts.) So for those keeping count, Jack’s Back is now juggling a serial killer, a murder mystery, a man wrongly accused, a twin brother who comes out of nowhere, Alexandre Dumas, and suspense over whether Rick will psychically experience enough of John’s murder to see whodunit. What more could this film offer us?
How about a little romance? Despite being freaked out both by Rick’s appearance and his plans to clear his brother, Chris offers to help. To her, he resembles John reincarnated as a more appropriate ’80s-era hero, a guy with a bad-boy streak, a killer car, and a dangerous mission. Saddled with huge, owlish glasses that scream “naughty librarian,” Gibb has a smoldering chemistry with Spader’s Rick. Harrington wisely leaves this unconsummated, instead letting his actors subtly react to each other’s presence. (The film’s last shot is a well-earned hug between the two.) Harrington also gives Spader a great scene where Rick visits John’s house and looks at remnants of his brother’s existence. Holding the picture of twin boys we saw John looking at early in the film (a bit of foreshadowing, to be sure), Spader silently registers guilt over his fraternal estrangement. Until the nightmare where he saw his brother’s murder through John’s eyes, Rick hadn’t connected with him in years. Spader makes you feel the guilt that propels him toward the film’s atmospheric conclusion.
Jack’s Back maintains a giddy storyteller’s glee from beginning to end, painting itself into corner after corner, only to escape every time. It works because of its stubborn belief in all aspects of the pulpy yarn it spins. There’s real charm in its compulsive desire to tie its preposterous loose ends, no matter how complicated the knots become. “That’s my story,” the film seems to defiantly say, “and I’m sticking to it.”