Picks and Pans Review: Jacknife

updated 04/03/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/03/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Robert De Niro, Ed Harris

There's an acting clinic going on in this movie, conducted by De Niro, Harris and their co-star, Kathy (Clean and Sober) Baker, in expressions, gestures, slight movements, no movement at all. They create affecting characters despite stilted situations and dialogue that suggest neither art nor life so much as someone sitting at a typewriter desperately trying to think of things for people to say: "If I want a point of view, I'll listen to the news." "Some things you can't talk about. Some things hurt too much to even think about."

De Niro and Harris play Vietnam veterans who are meeting for the first time in 15 years, with some sort of unspecified reconciliation at the heart of the reunion. Baker plays Harris's spinster sister, who is smitten by De Niro despite her brother's warnings that he is unpredictable. Harris is an alcoholic wreck, De Niro seems dangerously volatile, Baker is palpably lonely. Director David Jones, whose Betrayal is one of the most intimate movies about emotional relationships, seems in many respects to be perfect for this film, using his actors' skills at simplifying complicated impulses. In one scene, for instance, Baker and De Niro suggest an array of responses—attraction, fear, embarrassment, self-mockery—while saying and doing very little.

Jones, however, is English, which may not be an ideal qualification for making a film about the effects of Vietnam. And while screenwriter Stephen Metcalfe, adapting his play Strange Snow, is an American, he's a relatively young American. He was a teenager at the height of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Maybe it just happened to be the wrong British director and the wrong young American, but the film is filled with not-quite-right moments. The flashback combat scenes seem artificial. The frequent scenes of violent flare-ups seem contrived. The ending, which wraps things up in a series of neat packages, neutralizes its own emotional satisfactions. The film is never dull—everyone seems to be trying so hard, for one thing. But it ultimately doesn't seem to relate to much of anything other than the act of trying to make a powerful movie about Vietnam veterans, and good intentions go only so far. (R)

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