“Okay, I understand that, but Jack you need to realize that your sunglasses are the only protection you have from all the white out there.”
It wasn’t part of the original plan, but as I was re-watching the American John Woo movies I realized I had to revisit this 1998 USA Networks TV movie (and unfulfilled backdoor pilot), even though I did an okay job reviewing it long ago. I’ve recently had good luck recommending it to a couple people who never heard of it, but I hadn’t seen it myself in 11 years. Fortunately this thing (shot right after FACE/OFF) holds up as an absurd and entertaining Dolph Lundgren vehicle that transcends its cheapo format.
Dolph plays Jack Devlin, a world class bodyguard who seems to work out of Reno. In the opening he agrees to a favor for an old friend who owns a casino and needs him to protect his little girl Casey (Padraigin Murphy) from the mob. She calls him “Uncle Jack,” which I took literally this time, but my research tells me that they’re not actually related.
It goes down kind like in TAKEN, where the kids get to Europe and are immediately kidnapped. Here gunmen arrive about 30 seconds after Jack walks into the house with Casey. He’s checking the rooms upstairs when they come in.
I described this opening action scene in my original review, but I have to do it again to make it clear why this is not a drill, this is a must-see movie. During the gun battle (which involves plenty of Hong Kong style jumps and slides and debris) Jack is temporarily blinded by a grenade and has to carry Casey around on his back, telling him where to shoot or kick. “Roundhouse! 7 o’clock!” she says at one point, and it works. It’s kind of in the tradition of Tequila carrying the baby in HARD BOILED, except if he was blind and the baby was telling him where to shoot.
Then the place is gonna blow up so he throws her off the balcony, she bounces off a previously-established trampoline and lands safely in the swimming pool. He jumps just as a gigantic fireball singes his ass (a great stunt shown from two different angles and done I believe by stunt coordinator and Dolph double Wade Eastwood)…
…bounces off the trampoline in slow motion, and he fires back at the mansion (two handguns, of course), and they actually exchange shots back and forth, hitting each other, while he’s in mid-air. If that doesn’t make you smile then there’s nothing I can do for you, friend. My condolences.
He saves the girl, and some time passes, and he has his eyesight back, but a combination of the blinding white flash and traumatic childhood memories of the death of his gambler father has caused a phobia of the color white. Sometimes if he sees too much if it it weakens him like kryptonite or confuses him or messes up his vision. His psychiatrist (Kate Vernon, PRETTY IN PINK, MALCOLM X) has him wear sunglasses, so this is the rare movie with a psychiatric basis for the hero always wearing cool shades.
By the way, IMDb has some interesting trivia:
I suppose that’s true, but I believe I can explain it. Since it’s a Woo movie he wears nice suits and shirts. He doesn’t want to take that shit off.
Meanwhile his old friend Tim (Fred Williamson) is running a security company that’s protecting super model Cinder James (Kam Heskin, THE PRINCE AND ME II through ELEPHANT ADVENTURE) from a stalker. Not just like a weirdo who tries to get past security, but a cunning assassin who tries to take her out with a sniper rifle while she’s doing some kind of event for a contract she signed. They treat her like she’s the president, talking about “locking down” all the surrounding buildings and having “six units of NYPD” there. I feel like maybe they should just face reality and do their fashion thing in a secure location. My tax dollars should not go to this shit.
Jack doesn’t want to take the case until Tim gets shot. Then he takes over pro bono. This is not a Woo movie where hero and villain find that they’re alike. The hero is awesome and the villain is a gross sicko loser.
Jack carries weaponized playing cards and a Zippo lighter that was involved in his father’s death. He knows how to do card tricks, how to dance, how to do pain-curing (and orgasmic) chiropractic techniques, and how to help drug addicts. He had a problem with painkillers himself after the blinding/bouncing incident, so when he finds Cinder practically OD’d he knows to mambo with her limp body until she wakes/cheers up. When it gets real bad he calls in his psychiatrist, who wants to be alone with her and then apparently cures her of drug addiction offscreen during a period represented by a wipe.
At one point Jack also does a Jar Jar type move because he unknowingly saves Tim’s life by clumsily knocking over a poisoned IV at the hospital. Good bungle, Jack.
Phillip MacKenzie (a zombie in the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake) plays the villainous stalker who turns out to be Rory, Cinder’s ex-husband, a “failed actor gone haywire” who does Shakespeare scenes by himself and “word on the street says he’s been training in weapons.” He shakes and cries while aiming at her with his sniper pistol. He claims to love her and be protecting her.
In one scene he keeps a butterfly in a jar. So there’s that motif from BROKEN ARROW. There it represented the survival of man and nature despite the evil of the nuclear bomb. Here it represents something beautiful cruelly deprived of its freedom.
The best thing about Rory is that he has three faceless henchmen on motorcycles. I thought maybe I was misremembering that, but it’s true, and I still haven’t picked up an explanation of why they would be willing to kill and die (though they only end up doing the second one I believe) to help him stalk his ex-wife.
When he captures Jack he ties him to a chair, sits in a throne watching him and sets up five dummies made out of hay wearing blond female wigs with his friend Thomas (Saul Rubinek, UNFORGIVEN, DEATH WISH V) inside one of them so he keeps shooting them to scare Jack. Kind of an eccentric thing to do, in my opinion. But Jack uses his bladed playing card to cut the rope and throw at Rory, slicing his cheek so he’ll say “Oh my God – my face! You’re dead, Jack!” I guess since he’s an actor he’s vain, like Brakus in BEST OF THE BEST 2.
Another aspect that I wondered if I was making too much of it in my memory was the possibility that Jack is supposed to be gay. But it’s there just as much as I remember. At a glance you would assume that Thomas is Jack’s butler or something, but only because he cooks for him and takes care of him and lives at his house. They never treat each other like boss and employee. Jack introduces him more than once as “my friend” or “my friend Thomas.”Also, Thomas has some sort of past that gives him expertise in guns, which seems more like a guy that Jack would have a personal relationship with than a guy he would hire to cook and clean for him. Anyway, does Jack really have the money or lifestyle for a full time live in servant? And if that’s all he was, why would Rory choose him as the hostage to make Jack do his bidding?
There’s lots of dialogue that can be read two ways, including implications that Thomas is jealous of Jack buying a woman flowers. To be fair, Jack and Cinder do kiss once at the very end, but it seems like a one-and-done peck, definitely not a “we’re together now” or a “and now we have sex” type of kiss. So it doesn’t prove anything.
The opening is not the only great action. Maybe it lacks a trampoline, but I think the best chunk of action starts with one of Rory’s moto-maniacs attacking the security convoy by sliding a motorcycle under the limo and blowing it up with a time bomb. Then Rory walks out of the woods with a shotgun. His motorcycle guys drive by with machine guns and Jack does a couple of ultimate John Woo moves:
1. Slow motion two pistol launch off of burning car tackling guy off of motorcycle and landing in a somersault
2. Stealing a motorcycle and purposely falling sideways and shooting up in the air at a motorcycle jumping over him and shooting down at him and then that motorcycle lands in the flaming car and explodes and crashes and lands on top of him.
3. On the motorcycle he chases Rory, who’s on foot, but somehow goes from being like 5 feet in front of him to outrunning him and heading down an alley and into a warehouse, where Jack gets chased down a ramp by another motorcycle guy and spins around and drives backwards firing somewhere around 20 bullets until the motorcycle explodes into flames but then the guy drives out like a Terminator doing a flaming wheelie but then he falls off and Jack leaves.
And that’s when we get to the famous (in my mind) scene where Jack chases Rory into a dairy and gets milk poured on him and can’t fight anymore because he’s afraid of the color white and somehow Rory figures this out and starts wearing white suits and hanging up white sheets for the rest of the movie.
It’s kind of like reverse BLADE, because it’s all leading to Jack taking his sunglasses off when they eventually face off (no slash) again. In fact he purposely steps on them to be free of them. It’s like Luke taking off his headset and using The Force to blow up the Death Star. (that’s from Star Wars.) He can overcome his fear of white to win this fight against a guy in a white tux.
Even though it was made on less than one-fifth the budget and for a small screen and with Toronto TV crews, BLACKJACK infinitely more exciting than BROKEN ARROW. The second unit director and co-stunt-coordinator is Ken Quinn, who was the stunt double for RoboCop in the TV show. He did stunts in the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake as well as actual George Romero movies BRUISER and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD. It does look a little TV-ish, and has a 4.3 aspect ratio, but the feel, again, is more Woo, owing in part to a high volume of slow motion shots. The cinematographer is Bill Wong, a Hong Kong guy who shot GOD OF KILLERS, ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, YES MADAM, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA, etc. before coming to the U.S. to shoot Woo’s Once a Thief TV series.
And like HARD TARGET it’s a good mix of the Woo style and a particularly ridiculous strain of American action movie. So many “better” movies wouldn’t have the hero be afraid of a color, and then have a liquid of that color poured on him, and that’s why they are so boring and we forgot what happened in them. BLACKJACK waves its freak flag high, and in slow motion, with fire and butterflies all around it. Weirdly, though, screenwriter Peter Lance seems like a very serious guy. He was an Emmy-winning reporter and investigative correspondent for 20/20 and Nightline before he started writing for procedurals including Crime Story, Miami Vice, Walker, Texas Ranger and The Sentinel. BLACKJACK was his last credit before 9/11 sent him back into journalism, where he helped link the attacks to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He has written several acclaimed investigative books, mostly relating to terrorism, starting with 2003’s 1000 Years for Revenge, which argued that the FBI had many chances to stop 9/11. He only returned to television for the 2006 mini-series The Path to 9/11.
One time I tried to email him to ask if Jack and Thomas were really supposed to be gay, but I guess exhaustively researching the activities of terrorists and mobsters made him too busy to respond to a random dude.
I wonder what this would’ve been like if it had been picked up as a series? I guess Jack would protect different clients, raise Casey, spend some more time in casinos. Someone besides Woo would’ve directed and other episodes would most likely be lighter on flaming cars and motorcycles and buildings and people. So fuck that. We got the better option. Third best American John Woo movie, and a great showcase for Dolph.
NOTE: Look how cheap that is! Can you honestly tell me you don't need BLACKJACK in your life for $5.99?
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.