ICYMI: Jack's Back (1988)
In recent years, James Spader has gained notice and acclaim playing likable creeps like Alan Shore on The Practice and Boston Legal, and most recently as Raymond Reddington on The Blacklist. And while many would regard this work as two of his best performances, I would like you to consider 1988’s Jack’s Back where he also gives two very good performances…as twins. The film is an over-the-top but surprisingly effective thriller that follows a string of copycat murders timed to the 100th anniversary of the Jack The Ripper spree. The film was written and directed by Rowdy Harrington who subsequently directed the 1989 cult classic Road House. It sounds like cheap exploitation but Harrington provides enough visual style and a few intriguing twists to make it worth your while – as well as ignore a few plot holes.
As the film starts, we see Spader as “the good twin” John working as an ER doctor. His goodness is established in a charming scene with an elderly patient. Without giving too much away, John stumbles on to a prospective victim, is killed himself, and is framed as the killer. Enter Spader as Rick, “the bad twin.” At the time John was being murdered, Rick had a vision of John dying. Even though these two have never been emotionally close they have always shared a tenuous psychic connection. Rick jumps into action as an amateur sleuth to clear his brother’s name and find the real killer. He is aided by John’s co-worker Christine, played by Cynthia Gibb.
This all seems pretty standard but Jack’s Back find ways to play with traditional conventions. For example, Christine had an unrequited crush on John, and there is an attraction to Rick. But you don’t find Spader and Gibb thrown together in a tawdry sex scene. Instead they have a delicate dance of trust. Spader’s Rick is seemingly full of good intentions and yet there’s just a hint of danger. While we know he is not the killer, Gibb doesn’t know for sure and their scenes together are that more interesting. Additionally, director Harrington gives the movie a film noir look bringing out the seediness of LA at night.
But this film really is all about James Spader. Watching it you can see why he has had such a sustainable career for over thirty years. His characters are very rarely black and white. Yes, he has played his fair share of straight-up villains in Less Than Zero and Wolf as well as affable good guys in Stargate and Critical Care but it’s films like Jack’s Back as well as his recent TV work where he truly excels. At his best, it’s almost as if he as an actor is getting to know his character at the same time the audience is. He is always full of surprises. And so is Jack’s Back, in my opinion.