Not Jack Black

Blackjack was executively produced and directed by John Woo. This 1997 outing (released in 1998) was made during a time when famous directors only worked on TV if they had box office failures. John had to complete his two picture deal for a TV company called Alliance Communications. In 1998, they merged with Atlantis Communications. Still, Woo fulfilling his contractual obligation is a far cry from the prestige of David Lynch directing Twin Peaks or Abel Ferrara directing Crime Story. Replaying this movie in my mind makes me think that if John can remake movies as TV pilots (i.e. Once a Thief became Violent Tradition as it was known in the U.K.) then why not vice-versa?

Blackjack had promising potential. Even the legendary director had described it as a very dramatic and romantic story. Weirdly enough, Blackjack had the distinction of being a pilot that would only air on TV after being released straight to video. This is because Dimension purchased the video rights so as to cash in on the success of Face/Off while undermining the ratings of Blackjack. The video version is longer than the televised one. Some scenes were rearranged slightly like the ones with Rory acting in front of the empty chair. In either case, Woo was not allowed to edit his own version. Regardless, the quality of the film stock didn’t match the quality of the stills (35 millimeter photography) unlike many directors who elevated the medium of TV fiction.

Zentertainment, a `90s site, had reported that Rutger Hauer was opted for the role of Jack Devlin. He opted out. I can see why. If the series got picked up, he would’ve become a household name. If it didn’t, he would be degraded as having done a TV movie. As was the case with John’s Hard Target, a famous actor’s rejection results in being superseded by an actor skilled in the martial arts. Granted, Rutger did prove to be more efficient than sufficient when he did Blind Fury in 1988. Enter Dolph Lundgren (the B-list Schwarzenegger). Word was that, after Blackjack came out, Dolph would finally get recognition again and get a role in a major movie.

However, such comebacks only work in today’s climate. This is a shame for an actor who can fluently speak five languages. A similar letdown happened to Gary Daniels after his professional progression in the guise of The Expendables (a love letter to B movies which confirmed his low-rent status instead of elevating it to an A standing). If Dolph was Schwarzenegger on a tighter budget, then Daniels was Van Damme being economical in a way that was eco-friendly. Both B-listers were in The Expendables, whereas Arnold and Jean-Claude were in The Expendables 2 with the bigger irony hanging over their heads – they would have played nemeses in Predator if not for JCVD’s hissy fit.

Gary had worse luck than Dolph. JCVD was jealous of Daniels, so decided to not have him cast in A.W.O.L. with the excuse being that he wanted someone bigger in size. Woo as well as a few reviewers said that Blackjack was probably the first time that Dolph was able to flex his acting ability. John would often demonstrate which facial expressions that he wanted Dolph to emote. Another example of Woo going beyond the expected directorial capacity is overseeing Dolph and Philip MacKenzie duking it out. The guy, after all, did have experience in helming Kung Fu movies. He is the one director who you can trust outside of martial arts choreographers.

For a rare magazine called Thunder, John described Dolph as charming, intelligent with a great heart and no ego. He also noted that Dolph’s other films prior to this have never shown the real side of him. He complimented Dolph for having a great face that suggests a very strong person. Woo added that he is quite funny to the extent that Dolph brought to a movie that could’ve taken itself too seriously. This helped John to relax after the stress from the fame of Face/Off. Unlike his first pilot, Blackjack wasn’t a waste of time. Once A Thief could easily have been worthwhile had Woo intended to bring to life the original version of the Hong Kong movie (it became a comedy after the box office failure of a personal masterpiece titled Bullet in the Head). The history behind Blackjack was that it was announced in September of 1997 before shooting started in November.

It took 3 weeks to film (the same amount of time that it took for John to film the final battles in A Better Tomorrow II and Hard-Boiled). It took a third of that to shoot the first gunfight in Hard-BoiledBlackjack is notable for having the first gay action hero, even if it meant that any given audience had to out him instead of the writer. That doesn’t mean to say that the hero is unintentionally gay. The guy is intended to be a homosexual hero, it’s just that this movie is an example of never state what you can imply (what Jean Cocteau said). Partly, this is down to not wanting to put off hetero men and women (especially those who want an action movie that is so devoid of camp comedy that the tone is as straight as vodka). The other part is because the best subtext tends to be vague so as to allow for multiple interpretations.

Besides being a comeback for Dolph, the movie is a throwback to the original Once a Thief (1991) containing a scene where Chow Yun-Fat has miniscule weapons in the form of razor-sharp playing cards. That gimmick was not only a reference to Chow’s character in Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers (1989) but it was also an update of the tactic used by the protagonist in Jing’s Challenge of the Gamesters (1981). The protagonist of John’s movie is more intriguing than the mysterious god of gamblers. Jack Devlin’s love life is left to the audience’s imagination, but it’s obvious that there’s an unstated pun with Fred Williamson’s character – once you go black, you do back. The cheeky question is will they prove to be tighter in a way where tight-knit can be a suitable adjective?

Cheeky can easily be cheesy, though. Saul Rubinek plays Thomas – a butler who not only lives with Jack but is a friend from his past. This, alone, is a statement of how military lifestyles can foster homosexuality. He only has one eye because the joke is that a penis can be described as the third eye (think: One-Eyed Willy from The Goonies). With his penchant for imitating Frenchmen, Thomas is a lot more camp than the laconic Jack. The latter is the sort of gay guy who would rather be described as straight-acting. Jack is like Rock Hudson – a gay man who straight men envy, but the women are envious of the men in his life. Jack living with Thomas is like what if Bruce Wayne was living with Alfred Pennyworth instead of Robin Grayson as well.

His shrink, the catwalker and the motel counter girl want a piece of Jack’s piece (i.e. phallic gun), but the male bonding of any given Woo movie trivializes heterosexuality. The hetero kiss at the end doesn’t confirm Jack’s sexuality like it does for Ethan Hunt at the end of Woo’s Mission: Impossible II (I haven’t even started on the “Tom Cruise is closeted” rumours). Not only does the ending of Blackjack reflect the “woman of the week” structure of most TV serials, but it also symbolizes a gay man’s struggle to fit into the straight world. As for the action which is not homoerotic, the movie is surprisingly creative for a TV production. There’s one particular gimmick which is so cool that I don’t want to spoil it by giving it away. All I will say is that it seems to be an intentionally reverse recreation of a signature scene from Hard-Boiled.

There’s even a torture scene which is too original to spoil. All I will say is that it seems to be commentary of how a gay man dating a woman is like a scarecrow being used as a decoy. If the scarecrows had beards then it would be even more symbolic. What would have added immensely to the symbolism would be if Blackjack was about a black lesbian (named Jackie) whose fear of white is a manifestation of a racially motivated sexual assault that happened in her adolescence. Heterosexual relationships in this movie are portrayed in the same sort of bad light as having sex in a slasher movie, hence the 2000 parody Cherry Falls. Like in a slasher movie where a character gets killed for trying to lose their virginity, the villain’s deniability of his homosexuality is his downfall.

Jack’s shrink spends most of her screen time pouting at him in a way that’s as much to do with sulking as subliminally communicating her desire for him to kiss her. Her character is a trope that has been recently used in Lucifer – a female therapist who exists for the protagonist to deliver exposition in a way that doesn’t seem contrived. Nitpicking aside, it’s an interesting movie given the timing – it came off the heels of the sitcom (on its last legs) which Ellen DeGeneres starred in. Will & Grace was already underway by the time that Blackjack was green-lit in the pilot stage. The significance being that both projects were launched by Universal.

The former was an NBC production while the latter was being aired on the USA Network. In fact, the financing for the movie was guaranteed once it was known that Universal would air it one of its own TV subsidiaries. Blackjack is worth a look just to see Dolph and Fred playing men who we never thought that they would play, even if they are not in on the joke. The only thing missing is a scene where they are fishing and there is a red herring (symbolizing the woman that got away). Peter Lance (who’s more cerebral than at first glance) did a fine job with the screenplay. Substituting the “Will they? Won’t they?” cliché into the “Are they or are they not?” novelty. This reminds me of a German film titled Maybe, Maybe Not.

Blackjack is the gayest movie which I’ve ever seen that doesn’t actually show two men kissing. It’s subtextually interesting because Jack having leukophobia lends itself to a subtle sperm sight gag which manifests itself in a such way that reminded me of the Tara Reid joke in an American Dad! episode titled Iced, Iced Babies. In fact, I’m convinced that Blackjack was the inspiration for the most controversial scene in the history of that animated series. Adding to the subtextual mythology is the inclusion of a butterfly, which is an LGBT motif of being liberated after being enslaved in the caterpiller world of heterosexuality. Within the context of Blackjack, it’s more sinister than sincere. Woo’s movies are usually about two men on opposite sides of the same coin. Here, the divide in homosexuality involves the hero being in the closet versus the villain who is in denial.

If this movie was any more subtle then I would be accused of grasping at straws, but if it was more obvious then there would be no subtext. Make no mistake about it, this TV pilot wasn’t aimed at the middle-class geniuses who watch HBO shows. This was aimed at the working-class demographic who enjoy shows like Starsky & Hutch or Renegade, as evidenced by the fact that the film has to explain the definition of phobia in two instances. Ironically, some blue-collared people have picked up on the gayness because of the dialogue where you have to read between the lines. Blackjack is not primarily known as a gay movie because it’s not marketed as a gay action movie. If it was, many people would get the wrong idea (especially homophobes who fear the sight of men kissing each other). Where else are people going to hear about the world’s first gay action hero?

If another movie gains that label, this won’t get much attention for being the precedent. Those marketing Blackjack weren’t saying it. John didn’t say anything because then it would give people plausible cause to assess his other films as being homoerotic. Then again, a British film critic named Mark Kermode has often said that subtext can exist in a film where the director didn’t intend it. Money-wise, it’s probably a mistake to not come out with it because the curiosity alone would bring in a lot of viewers. The word of mouth, for the most part, endangered instead of engendered. Any chances of this being a long-lasting TV series would turn out to be wishful thinking. Rutger Hauer chose wisely. The series didn’t get picked up because the TV equivalent to Nostradamus predicted that V.I.P. would eclipse it. Within good reason. Pamela Anderson was a literally hotter commodity.

During the making of Blackjack, Woo was visited by two men who happened to be the writers of Face/Off. Mike Werb and Michael Colleary had just completed the screenplay of King’s Ransom. This would’ve reunited him with Chow had it not been for receiving a phone call from Tom Cruise to helm M:I-2. This is unfortunate given how that movie has the reputation for being the worst in a franchise where Tom will finish older than Roger Moore did with James “007” Bond. King’s Ransom was about four jewel thieves – 3 men and a woman. It was going to be a pastiche of `60s heist films like The Thomas Crown Affair. John said: “It is a very charming and elegant love story. It’s not as crazy as Once a Thief. It’s very subtle, but full of love, friendship and hope.”

Back to Mark Kermode, he once assumed that Lundgren would be more popular than Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme due to having a better grasp of the American accent. To be fair on The Doctor (i.e. he earned a PHD in English at the University of Manchester), it made sense at the time (the late eighties) because The Punisher as a comic book had a bigger fan-base than The Terminator whereas Van Damme was not an A-lister back then. Unfortunately, the 1989 adaptation of The Punisher did not get a U.S. cinema release despite being theatrically released elsewhere.


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