By 1988, James Spader was probably tired of playing countless Preppie douchebags and Yuppie slimeballs in films like Pretty in Pink (1986), Baby Boom (1987), and Less Than Zero (1987). If you needed someone to play a materialistic scumbag with no morals, Spader was your man. Before sex, lies, and videotape (1989) changed his career forever, he did a little seen thriller called Jack’s Back (1988), about a series of Jack the Ripper copycat murders. The film was quite a departure for Spader who ended up playing identical twins – a young, altruistic doctor and his ne’er-do-well sibling. The film also marked the auspicious directorial debut of one Rowdy Herrington, the “auteur” behind such meat and potato action films as Road House (1989) and Striking Distance (1993). Sadly, Jack’s Back was barely released and hardly reviewed, languishing in obscurity, which is too bad because it is an oddly affecting thriller with quite a decent performance by Spader who seems to be relishing the fact that he doesn’t have to wear a Polo shirt.
The police are baffled by a series of murders each committed 100 years to the day from the original Jack the Ripper killings. They have one more night and one last killing but have no leads or suspects. John Wesford (James Spader) is a young Los Angeles doctor who is active in the community, much to the chagrin of the head doctor (Rod Loomis) at the free clinic he works at. He’s a good physician and seems genuinely concerned about the people he treats and Spader does a nice job conveying his character’s caring beside manner even if the film lays his crusading doc status on a little thick.
However, Jack’s Back succeeds in doing what few if any of Spader’s film had done before – allow us to sympathize with his character. Director Herrington helps out by successfully establishing the clinic where John works at and the people he works with so that we become invested in their lives, like the playful flirting between John and fellow doctor Christine Moscari (Cynthia Gibb). That is why it comes as such a shock when he is murdered 25 minutes into the film by someone who appears to be the Jack the Ripper copycat murderer.
Within moments of his brother dying, Richard Wesford (Spader again) awakes from a nightmare where he saw John murdered. He goes to the police but they are understandably skeptical (one of the detectives is memorably played by the always watchable Chris Mulkey). John’s death looks like a suicide and he’s a medical student so all the evidence points to him. As a result, they think that they’ve found their murderer. Rick knows otherwise and proceeds to prove it with the help of Chris.
Herrington establishes the differences between the twins visually by what they wear – John wears a white sports jacket and pastel colors while Rick wears a black leather jacket and blue jeans (because, you know, he’s a rebel). Spader does all the heavy lifting by creating different behavior for each sibling. John is kind and caring while Rick is a brooding loner. Spader has a tougher job portraying John because he has very little time to introduce him and get us to empathize with him. With Rick, he ups the brooding intensity which makes it a little harder to like him but Spader’s unique charisma helps considerably and over the course of the rest of the film the actor gradually peels back Rick’s tough exterior.
Cynthia Gibb conveys an adorable Nancy Drew vibe with Chris. I always liked the cute girl-next-door thing she had going on in the 1980s and how she appeared in films as diverse as the Rob Lowe hockey drama Youngblood (1986) and Oliver Stone’s hard-hitting political thriller Salvador (1986). She isn’t the strongest actress in the world, which may explain why she never made more of an impact in Hollywood, but she has an engaging personality and nice chemistry with Spader. There are even hints of a sexual tension thing going on between their characters that lurks under the surface and never feels forced.
Herrington keeps things moving while still taking the time to let us get to know Spader’s characters, even giving time for Rick to reflect over how the death of John affects him. This is something that is missing from his subsequent thrillers. Maybe he figured that was why Jack’s Back failed commercially and moved on to no-nonsense action films like Road House and thrillers like Striking Distance, which are competent guilty pleasures but feature pretty conventional protagonists that are no where near as compelling as what Spader does in Jack’s Back. Herrington knows his way around the conventions of the thriller genre, and is able to build suspense at the right moment and where to punctuate the film with an action sequence, even if the climax seems to borrow heavily from the one in Manhunter (1986).
Jack’s Back was shot in September 1987 on a budget of $1.5 million. Cinema Group, a small film company that changed its name to Pallisades Entertainment, financed the film. They pre-sold the rights via cable and home video sales in lieu of proper promotion and a wide theatrical release. What reviews Jack’s Back did get were mixed. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised Herrington’s work: “He has taken the trouble to make three-dimensional characters, and paused here and there to provide scenes that make the characters seem real and complicated, instead of just pawns in a movie formula.” However, The New York Times’ Caryn James felt that the film was “so dull it leaves you plenty of time to marvel at how a plot can be this rickety, how a production can look this shabby, and how the first-time writer and director Rowdy Herrington could borrow a story with so relentless a grip on our imaginations and in no time at all declaw it.”
Herrington does a decent job at keeping us guessing as to the killer’s identity. Is it the hulking intern (Rex Ryon) who works at the free clinic? Is it the oddly detached police psychiatrist (nicely played by Robert Picardo)? Or, is it Rick, a man with a checkered past and medical training? Let’s be honest, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out but the film is still an enjoyable ride – the cinematic equivalent of an engrossing page-turner you read on the way into work on a given day and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.