Director – Jamie Childs – 2023 – UK – Cert. 15 – 97m
When ex-British army mercenary Jack Dawson – a.k.a. Jackdaw – retrieves a package from the North Sea for a client, things go horribly wrong, forcing him to go through the North East in search of answers – British action thriller is out in UK cinemas on Friday, January 26th
Jackdaw is the nickname for Jack Dawson (Oliver Jackson-Cohen from Emily Frances O’Connor, 2022; The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal, 2021; The Invisible Man, Leigh Whannel, 2020), an ex-army mercenary who looks after his down syndrome brother Simon (Leon Harrop). A call comes in to his answering machine for what appears to be a routine job picking up a package from the coastal waters of the North Sea, and it pays well, so might provide the much-needed opportunity for the two brothers to improve their lot. Jack is good at what he does, but the job proves to be far less routine than stated, as he finds himself first the quarry of a pursuit then discovers his brother has been kidnapped. In search of answers, he sets off on visiting a trail of contacts across the underworld of the North of England.
This is an attempt by director Childs (previously a director of TV series episodes of The Sandman, 2022; Doctor Who, 2018, among others) at making a hard hitting thriller showcasing an area of the country outside of London (in this instance, Teeside and the North East). It’s a variant on the ‘one last job’ scenario – the mercenary or criminal or operative who wants out, but to finance a decent life takes on one last job when then goes disastrously wrong. And Jackdaw himself sounds like a character who, if the makers get this film right, could potentially spawn a franchise.
Although there are some successful elements – most notably the top-notch cinematography by Will Baldy (Doctor Who, 2017-18) which makes the film look very good – there’s too much that doesn’t come off. For a start, there are script problems – the press notes tout Dawson as a former motocross champion and army veteran, and while the latter persona element is clear in the way the script presents the character, the former is not, although there is much motorcycle action within the film. And to carry a film like this, the lead actor needs a certain something, which Jackson-Cohen doesn’t exhibit here, otherwise watching him becomes hard work. (Consider the suave Sean Connery in (Terence Young, 1962), the film which launched the James Bond franchise, or Michael Caine’s callous, tough as nails protagonist in Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971); in both cases, you can’t take your eyes off them.)
Then, there is the well-worn British movie template of serial, quirky characters, some of them – as is the case here – from the main character’s past. However, with one notable exception, the supporting performances fail to light up the screen. Silas, who set up Dawson’s job that goes wrong, is played by Joe Blakemore (from The Levelling, Hope Dickson Leach, 2016) as if he had wandered in from a 1970s drama and feels completely out of place. Jenna Coleman (Klokkenluider; Neil Maskell, 2022; TV series The Sandman, 2022; Doctor Who, 2012-17) as Dawson’s old girlfriend Bo isn’t really given much to do that might help save the film, and the same can be said of Thomas Turgoose (Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Matthew Vaughn, 2017; This is England, Shane Meadows, 2006) as a lowlife with whom our hero falls in. Some if not all of these are capable performers, so perhaps they weren’t given the necessary direction. Or perhaps they did decent work, and it was destroyed in the editing: some of Jenna Coleman’s scenes, in particular, seem to employ a great deal of cutting.
The one outstanding performance here, and the actress only gets one scene, is Eddy (Vivien Acheampong, also from The Sandman), one of the first people to whom the betrayed Dawson pays a visit. She is the person in the script who sits at her desk and tells him how the lands lies and what he can expect on his adventure, like a cross between Moneypenny and M in the Bond movies. The scene is largely static (it’s little more than two people in a room) so there’s no rapid cutting to interfere with her performance. Acheampong is nothing less than electrifying in her brief appearance here, and had the film overall been as impressive as this one scene, it could have been a real winner. Alas, it isn’t.
The opening North Sea sequence (of which, more in a minute) suggests that the audience might be about to be treated to a series of impressive, nighttime North East England vistas, but the film swiftly undercuts this promise by having the majority of its scenes take place indoors (and, worse, in a series of locations which, lacking any distinctive identity, tend to blur into one another). Following the opening, incoming answering machine message, Jack must swim and canoe out to a buoy off the North Sea coast to collect a package hidden underwater. But then, he finds himself being chased. The production logistics are all there, which must have taken some doing, especially since the scene was shot in temperatures below freezing, and yet, again, the sequence fails to ignite. It somehow simply isn’t exciting. Lacklustre editing, perhaps?
Considering that this character could have been an English Jack Reacher or Mission Impossible – or even a minor rival to Bond – and done wonders for the North of England, to say it is a disappointment would be nothing if not an understatement. Incidentally, it has a highly promising poster that makes it look like it could be something really special. Kudos to whoever designed that poster. However, the film is nothing special: it’s one of those “I’ve watched this so you don’t have to” movies. Avoid.
Jackdaw is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, January 26th.