Jack In A Box

Any Nicholson movie is worth watching - although this one stretches things a bit.

Sean Penn makes a third attempt at direction and, with the aid of the incomparable Jack Nicholson, comes up with a semi-decent effort, but one that leaves us with a ethereal taste of unfulfillment.

The story revolves around a retired detective, Jerry Black (Nicholson), who in his last few hours of work, is confronted with the horrific murder of a young girl. Jerry breaks the news to the parents and is pushed into swearing by the "salvation of his soul" that he will catch the killer. That seems to be unnecessary, as a drug-crazed Indian (del Toro) is apprehended. He seems to admit the crime and then shoots himself. Jerry however, is not convinced - he stays away from his vacation to do a little more research and starts gathering some intangible clues. Finally, after a few interviews, he's convinced that there is a serial killer on the loose. But (predictably) nobody believes him.

He then buys himself a gas station and settles down to a life of angling at the local lake and running a small business. In enters Robin, a waitress at a local bar, who takes refuge in Jerry's house after a brutal beating by her ex-husband. Robin has a daughter who also fits the profile of the victims. And, in a final breakthrough, Jerry finds himself a suspect. A local, Mr. Jackson, then befriends the young girl while Jerry gets increasingly convinced of his guilt. This leads to a finale, in which a lot of unexpected things happen.

The techinical part of the film cannot be faulted. The pace is easy, in keeping with the whole concept of the fishing locale. The seasons are panned through with a modicum of credibility. The soundtrack is exceptional and often picks up when the movie seems to drift for a few moments.

However, what holds the movie back is its blase overtone. The small county town atmosphere is overdone and, frankly, boring. The setting is also quite predictable and at times the direction seems to be in a state of "lets-see-how-far=we-can-drag-this-out". The story - well, it's often too much like a Bollywood movie or an O. Henry story, with the brutal ex-husband, the love relationship between Jerry and Robin, and the detective on a mission. The ending is abrupt without being climactic enough to make any impact.

The acting is decent. After the movie ends, you wonder why Penn felt the need to use actors like Vanessa Redgrave, Costas Mandylos and Mickey Rourke in such meaningless and miniscule roles. Apart from that, the biggest disappointment is Nicholson himself. This is not to say that he's not good - he is, but we're so used to him being brilliant that this is a letdown. His vibrancy is unduly restrained and he almost seems to treat the movie as one big fishing trip itself. So, if you're expecting an "As Good As It Gets" - forget it.

The movie is good for a watch - any Nicholson movie is. But it ain't great and the story doesn't move or touch or excite. Kind of like having vanilla ice-cream without the chocolate sauce.

This article was first published on 16 Aug 2001.