Blu-ray Review: Rowdy Herrington’s Underrated Thriller JACK’S BACK



SHOCK reviews one of the 1980’s most obscure offerings, James Spader in JACK’S BACK.

Actor James Spader is nowhere to be found on the supplemental features for Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release of Rowdy (ROADHOUSE) Herrington’s 1988 directorial debut JACK’S BACK.

As the actor has a reputation for being a bit odd and aloof and has since seemingly left any mention of his days as an 80’s heartthrob behind him, one can speculate that revisiting a modestly budgeted thriller he made back then, one that, despite its quality, did his career no progressive service, was of little interest.

And that’s a damn shame.

Because unlike the bulk of his brat-pack brethren, Spader  (David Cronenberg’s CRASH) was the only one who could really act.

There was always an aura of danger and Brando-esque brood in Spader’s persona; from his turn as a slimy rich kid  in 1986’s PRETTY IN PINK to his malevolent role as pimp/pusher human monster in 1987’s LESS THAN ZERO, the actor was always bigger than the youth-oriented films he was cast in and you always wanted to see him take center stage.

Presumably, Spader and his people thought so too and he likely took the lead in JACK’S BACK in hopes that he’d have ample room to explore his craft on a larger canvas. And he most certainly does. In fact, he plays two roles and does so with edge, energy and emotional depth.

But JACK’S BACK was either ignored (strangely, Siskel & Ebert liked it, but few others did) or dismissed and, after its video release, the film fell into obscurity, taking with it Spader’s crackerjack performance(s).

The film is set in contemporary LA, with a sadistic serial killer running rampant through the city carving up prostitutes in a bid to continue the same spate of murders committed by notorious and uncaught British fiend Jack the Ripper. Spader plays a young doctor who inadvertently walks in on an orderly standing over the body of an eviscerated hooker and, when he tries to tell the police, is murdered for his troubles, his death re-framed as a suicide.

In a flash, we see the doctor wake in fright and are led to believe that he had a dream about his demise.

Except it’s not the doctor…it’s his twin brother!

While the police believe that the doc was the ripper and had committed suicide when cornered, his scrappier, scar-faced sibling has seen the face of who he believes is the true killer and joins forces with one of his brother’s colleagues (Cynthia Gibb) to both catch the madman and clear his brother’s name.

The gimmick in JACK’S BACK is admittedly a silly one and, under a different director and with a different star, the film would indeed be easy to forget. But Herrington is a great writer. His dialogue crackles. His characters are fully fleshed out and most importantly, they are urgently engaged with the drama.

There’s twists and turns and even a bit of gore and there’s acres of giallo-informed style, with late-80’s LA breathing a kind of scummy, sweaty menace.

And then there’s Spader.

Like a young Mickey Rourke, the handsome actor channels a kind of rough-hewn mania as he tries to get a handle on the death of his brother and his new-found psychic abilities while being sucked into the blackest of murder mysteries. He’s fantastic and, from the interviews with Herrington (not to mention his great commentary) and co-star Gibb on the back end of this release, the entire cast and crew were in awe of him. Spader was no teen pretty-boy riding the rails of the Hollywood fast track, he was – and presumably, remains – a deadly serious actor who commits fully completely to the work.

And like Spader, JACK’S BACK is also fully committed. Committed to delivering a tight, taught, intelligent and engaging entertainment, the kind of compact, professional and expectations-defying thriller that they just don’t make anymore.

There’s also a great, mumbling Bruce Springtseen-esque song that opens the film and appears throughout, called “Red Harvest” by Paul Saax that  gives the movie an extra jolt of 80’s cool.

And kudos to Scream Factory for digging up a film that more people need to see and for reminding us that Spader is one of the great American actors.