Jack's Back (1988)

MAY 23, 2012


True story – when I was like 9 I saw a commercial for Jack’s Back’s upcoming premiere on HBO (or Cinemax) and thought it was a sequel to Jack The Ripper, the TV miniseries that I had taped and never finished on account of being 9 and thus not old enough to understand the damn thing. So I never saw Jack’s Back, either - I was starting to get to that age where I didn't want to watch a sequel until I saw the original. Now it's 20+ years later and I know better, but I had actually forgotten all about the movie until I saw it on the Netflix horror page. Apparently it’s never even been released on DVD in this region – always charmed by such titles on Netflix Instant. Remember when they were a DVD company?

Anyway, it’s not a particularly good movie. Right off the bad you can sense something is amiss, because there’s a killer recreating the Jack murders in modern day (1988) Los Angeles, and he’s almost done when the film begins – the cops are working to catch him before he gets his final victim. James Spader figures out who the victim will be and races over, only to discover he’s too late and that a guy he works in the medical office with is the killer (OR IS HE?), and after a decent car chase, Spader is killed and assumed to be the murderer by the police.

From then on the movie is little more than a typical 80s thriller, with Spader (as the dead character’s twin brother – yep, one of those) trying to clear his brother’s name while protecting Cynthia Gibb from the real killer. But the guy is done! All he wanted to do was recreate Jack’s murders, and he did that, so there’s no tension whatsoever. The “clear his brother’s name” plot isn’t nearly enough to sustain the rest of the movie (more than an hour!), and without any sort of countdown built into the plot, the movie is just sort of hanging out with itself until Spader figures out who the real killer is, resulting in a quick, scare-free climax.

It baffles me that they didn’t start the movie on the penultimate crime, so that the rest of the movie could concern the living Spader’s attempt to prove that his brother was innocent by preventing the 5th and final murder in time (while some local murders are occasionally credited to The Ripper, only 5 were proven to be his doing). This could solve both of the movie’s major problems with one quick rewrite, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what benefit they thought they’d have by removing the copycat element from the majority of the movie. I guess it works as a nice first act twist, but writer/director Rowdy Herrington doesn’t do a damn thing with it. And people bitch about his film Striking Distance! At least that one had some tension and that awesome boat/car chase. And Willis.

It’s also never clear why the presumed murderer kills the first Spader, since as we learn later (and was pretty obvious anyway) he wasn’t the killer. The real killer (spoiler) was their boss, so maybe we’re supposed to figure that they were working together or something, but it’s never explained and thus quite obnoxious. The only successful thing about this “whodunit” approach is that it seems like Robert Picardo’s character is going to be revealed as the real killer, so when we learn it’s someone else it’s a decent surprise. Sadly, the other guy was a dull character most folks would have forgotten about by then, so again, it’s a waste of an intriguing plot idea.

The only real entertainment I got out of the movie (besides marveling at how much Gibb resembles Emma Watson) was the 80s-ness of the thing, with pretty much every cliché of the decade represented. An angry black police captain? Check. A scene set in a porn shop/strip club for no reason? Check. Lots of jazzy sax? Check. Then we have some “oh, the 80s” details, like a guy in a hideous pink and blue pastel shirt giving our hero some grief, and people smoking inside the mall… it’s possible that the only way to enjoy anything about this movie is if you have an appreciation for how silly the 80s were. There is one bit that I loved though – Spader goes into a bar and, like all movie characters before him, simply says “a beer” when prompted for an order. However, for once, the waitress does not consider this specific enough and demands to know which kind. Yes! (Gibb was smart enough to order a Bass, for the record.)

I hope someday I’ll see another good Jack the Ripper movie. I remember From Hell being decent whenever Heather Graham wasn’t on-screen (which wasn’t often enough), and Edge of Sanity was OK but lacked a third act. The only one I’ve really liked is Hammer’s Hands Of The Ripper, which was pretty great but also not really about Jack and/or his victims, but about his daughter inheriting his penchant for killing women. Come on, there’s gotta be a way to crack this one!

What say you?


  1. Whoa! Thanks for the heads up...haven't seen this in years. I have my own true story--I can remember seeing that box art up there when I was younger and for some reason I thought Spader looked like Michael J. Fox. I was apparently blind as a child.

    But I will definitely be watching this soon.

  2. I almost got on you for not mentioning I'd recommended this to you (not necessarily as a good movie, but more one that I'd just be interested in hearing your take on)...but then I remembered that I always post as "Anonymous" and you have no idea who I am (for the record, I only do so because I have no idea how to post as anything else).
    But, seriously, you didn't at least kind of dig James Spader's performance(s)?

  3. Rowdy Herrington is the worst. It says something that his best movie is liked for being so relentlessly idiotic. My favorite dumb moment in all of his movies is Striking Distance where Bruce Willis sees the car dump something into the river, and decides he'd better starts pumping bullets into the car. It could have just been trash, you know!


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