No, I won’t be making out that Freejack is an unfairly maligned, hidden classic or that it deserves cult status. It’s a movie I’d hazard got a greenlight off the back of the promise of sci-fi action with a dash of the cerebral, à la Total Recall (right down to a co-screenplay credit for Ronald Shusett) but stumbles resoundingly in both areas. Indeed, even its premise is only one-part good, such that Netflix’s forthcoming Altered Carbon, boasting a not dissimilar mind transfer conceit, is wisely not going with the daftly depicted time-travel element. Consequently, Freejack was rightly trashed on its release. Does it have anything to recommend it, then? Well…
I recall thinking the picture might have potential at the time, principally because I knew Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth (a great little movie) and because I’d enjoyed his previous film, Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory, a rare sequel that was superior to the original. And also, because Emilio Estevez was still making the occasional entertaining movie. Although, I’d admittedly given him perhaps too much of a free pass as a result of Repo Man. Neither comes away from Freejack with much credit (nor Anthony Hopkins, who was also a reason-to-see at that point).
Estevez tended to be at his best laughing along bemusedly with or at events that befell him, but attempting the straight action hero finds him woefully out of his depth (he gets to unpack his laugh occasionally, but it seems out of place). This needed someone who could fill the empty spaces Murphy leaves, rather than drawing attention to them. He also has zero chemistry with Rene Russo, or very much with anyone, come to that (still, Russo met co-writer Dan Gilroy on set, so she at least got something out of the experience).
Presumably, Estevez and Murphy had built a rapport on Young Guns II, which might be why the former reportedly felt particularly let down by the director’s cut of Freejack, which emphasised action over plot and was greeted disastrously at test screenings. This led to the reshooting of up to forty percent of the picture, adding more character and humour… supervised by writer-producer Shusett, who has no bona-fide directing credits at all. Once can only assume Morgan Creek (who produced Young Guns II but also got the scissors out for the likes of Nightbreed and The Exorcist III over the same period) thought it was a lost cause and hardly worth shelling out for a director with actual chops.
Freejack is cited as costing $30m, and as is invariably the case when a fix-it occurs, no one was any more interested after the Band-Aids were applied (it grossed just over half its budget). It isn’t hard to see where things went wrong on a very basic level; Murphy simply didn’t have the funds to make his future remotely convincing; it cost half as much as Total Recall, with which it wanted to compete, and lacked the kind of director who could be creative with what he had (ironic, since The Quiet Earth’s particular strain of sci-fi made a virtue of its no-budget).
Because Freejack looks thoroughly cheap and tacky, not so far from straight-to-video fare, the kind of budget-divested, technically hamstrung picture that led to the similarly disastrous Highlander II: The Quickening from fellow antipodean Russell Mulcahy the previous year. There are futuristic fashions, but they make the ones in Predator 2 look convincing (polo necks are in, as are oversized jackets and hats – although that all might just be how they hang off Estevez). There are futuristic cars, but mostly, they comprise military vehicles painted red or are rather twee and insubstantial. There are crowd scenes featuring a poverty-stricken underclass, but they’re lacklustre and underpopulated. Jesus Jones are back in style in 2009 too, which I must have missed.
The aesthetic issues mightn’t have been such a problem, were there a meaty plot to sustain them. Whatever Shusett did with those reshoots, it definitely didn’t include beefing up the story, which is essentially all chase after the initial setup. Total Recall, despite being nominally an Arnie action vehicle, managed to balance its brawn with thornier existential dilemmas (not wholly successfully, but that was inevitable once Arnie signed on and Verhoeven’s more tactile mind re-sculpted the material; it’s really the ideal Cronenberg plot, and a shame his version didn’t come to pass).
Freejack had the potential for its own ruminations over the nature of self and identity, finding as it does Estevez’ Alex Furlong, a Formula One driver from 1991, abducted seconds before his car fatally impacts an underpass. The ensuing ethical equation presumes that, since he ought to be dead, his body is up for grabs as a vessel for the consciousness of any rich, dying fellow in the future; unfortunately, Alex hasn’t been properly lobotomised, and aided by the convenient intervention of an armed gang, goes on the run, causing considerable problems.
The mechanics of this 2009 society are never effectively explained, leaving gaping holes in its fundament. It can only be taken as half-baked, pulpy nonsense; those who abduct Alex are known as bonejackers, mercenaries of whom Mick Jagger’s Victor Vacendak is one (more from him in a bit). And those who escape are known as freejacks – making you wonder how organised these mercenaries aren’t, that fugitives are frequent enough to merit a collective name.
The consequences and capabilities of this time-travel tech are left completely undiscussed, because it’s a plot device getting us from point A to point B, rather than having any thought put into it. How come mercenaries have the tech? And, if they have it, presumably what government there is has it too? In which case, what are they or aren’t they using it for? What capabilities does time travel have in this world? What are the rules?
If you’re wondering why time travel is there at all, it’s Robert Sheckley’s fault. His Immortality, Inc, upon which this is based, features consciousness transference for a price (courtesy of The Hereafter Corporation), its main character being the first such success story, brought to 2110.
Freejack boils the device down to a fish-out-of-water with a contemporary reference point (works for Demolition Man) and the culture shock of a reverse Back to the Future. Estevez meets his older girlfriend, Russo’s Julie Redlund, eighteen years later; curiously, one might say positively, there’s no mention of this age gap as a negative (perhaps because they don’t even try to age Russo up/down, and she’s eight years older than Estevez – she seems much too mature for him in 1991, and I don’t mean old, let alone in 2009).
This time-travel element requires a reason for those wanting new bodies passing over unsuspecting members of their present-day populace; we’re told this is because they’ve lived half their lives with no ozone layer, with drug dependencies and radiation (not really that convincing, if you have the resources to hop bodies whenever the crappy ones run out). At the abject end, it’s the kind of society crying out for suicide booths as a source of relief, but they didn’t include this aspect from Sheckley’s novel (Futurama put them in its first episode, but I suspect Morgan Creek were squeamish, or writers Shusset, Steven Pressfield and Gilroy simply didn’t recognise the “genius” of idea).
This future corporatopia has intimations of gradual takeover by the Japanese (the US lost a trade war, we are told) and needless to say, doesn’t look anything like our 2009 past; while there’s reference to the topical erosion of the middle class (“There’s people at the top. There’s people at the bottom. There’s no one in between”), there’s nothing more to tell us how this society functions, or doesn’t.
McCandless: Welcome to my mind.
Also present in this hotchpotch future is a super computer called the Spiritual Switchboard, the closest we come to anything vaguely taking in a technological revolution (sure, there are video screens, and Big Brother bulletins for wanted persons – these bounty hunters are evidently entirely legit, as the $10m reward for Alex is flashed everywhere – and laser and electric stun guns, but that’s about it). However, it’s reserved as a tool of the Elite, a means to upload their consciousnesses, and it’s visualised as very-creaky-but-kind-of-retro-cool-now rear video projection of Anthony Hopkins promenading across different landscapes and lightshows. All a bit Dreamscape or Altered States.
We spend a long time – the movie’s under two hours but seems longer thanks to severe pacing problems – getting to the showdown with Ant’s richer-than-rich McCandless, but it is actually worth it and easily the highlight. Hopkins doesn’t need to put in effort to be good (apparently, he labelled it a “terrible film”), and he entirely lifts his scenes, almost making you swallow that McCandless, now dead and existing in a solely virtual mind state, is sorry for the imposition upon Alex, having observed his love for Julie (who works for McCandless), and that he, also loving her, cannot have her (“Of course, I was mad. I was quite mad… For these crimes, I sentence myself to death”). He is, of course, stalling, stalling, for Vacendak’s arrival.
Nun: Don’t sister me.
If Hopkins is relatively good value, then – this was his first movie to come out after The Silence of the Lambs, but the first role to really capitalise on his new-found box-office clout would be Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula later that year – so are most of the incidental cast. David Johansen shows up as Alex’s former agent; it was the New York Dolls frontman’s most notable movie role since playing the Ghost of Christmas Past in Scrooged. The magnificent Jonathan Banks, when he had hair (see also Gremlins, Beverly Hills Cop and Otherworld; I’d add Wiseguy, but I only ever caught the odd episode), is McCandless’ unscrupulous subordinate Michelette, who doesn’t want his boss revived. Amanda Plummer had just gained notice for her loopy turn in The Fisher King, and her trash-talking psycho nun is cheesily memorable (“The good Lord always says to turn the other cheek. But he never had to deal with dickheads like you” she says, kicking Michelette in the nuts after he has hit her – Banks does great groin-kicked).
lex: How the hell do you eat river rat?
Eagle Man: Well, first you gotta cut off the head and the tail…
Frankie Faison shows up as Eagle Man, sitting by the river talking about eating rats when Alex washes up. Jerry Hall cameos as a newswoman. Grand L Bush (Special Agent Johnson, no not the other one, in Die Hard) sacrifices himself for Emilio. John Shea plays Julie’s gay friend, who Estevez is clearly itching to tell a homophobic joke but somehow resists. And then there’s Mick.
Alex: How am I doing?
Vacendak: Not ba-ad.
Mick can’t act – he makes Leee John look like Olivier – and Mick simply is not butch. There’s no way he remotely looks the part of a bounty hunter in that over-sized helmet, and that’s before one takes into consideration his camp delivery (“Oh no, I hate the dark!”) and complete indifference to any notion of inhabiting a role. But Mick being Mick (and this was his first movie since the back-to-back Performance and Ned Kelly 22 years earlier), he is entertainingly rubbish, whether it’s observing Alex dropping in a river (“If you drink any of that, I’m out of a job”), sportlingly offering to let him go on the run again (“I’ll give you a five-minute start”), or allowing him to win at the end (Alex has to guess McCandless’ private code, which he apparently does: “I lied, he wasn’t even close” announces Vacendak, the old rogue. Who’d have guessed Mick would turn out to be a good guy deep down?)
Almost everyone involved in Freejack went on to better things, except for its two leading figures. Estevez was getting more of a hankering for directing anyway (the results, shall we charitably say, have been mixed), while Murphy’s directorial career seemed to crumble subsequently, scraping together a couple more sequels (Under Siege 2, Fortress 2) before submitting to second-unit duties for Peter Jackson on The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
And Freejack itself would attain a certain inane glory, immortalised in True Romance when Patricia Arquette exclaims “Hey, we got cable” as she witnesses Russo’s gloriously awful crash-zoomed scream of horror as Alex crash zooms his car. She wisely gives up in favour of alcohol. Brad Pitt, through his stoner haze, perseveres longer, reaching the Alex-McCandless mind transfer before James Gandolfini interrupts him. Probably the only state to successfully navigate the movie, and even then…