A review requested by a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.
It’s a bit bracing to wander into a movie that’s such a perfect unknowable object as Jackie’s in Trouble. Even the most hardscrabble low-budget “me and my friends were fucking around in front of a camera” indie film has, in this age of the internet, some kind of online marketing presence, at least enough to be able to figure out where it came from and who made it. For Jackie’s in Trouble, I was provided a YouTube link to the entire 63-minute feature and the information that it screened a grand total of twice in New York, and that it was produced in 2001; it also has a Facebook page that includes no information to speak of. And that is, so far as I can tell, all of it. Nothing to go with on this one but my wits.
It’s a relatively straightforward high-concept crime thriller; I’d say that with only 63 minutes to play with, the filmmakers didn’t have the luxury of a complicated plot, but that’s not entirely fair. In point of fact, 63 minutes was not quite enough time to tell this story, which doesn’t leave anything out, exactly but which does steamroll though its material so quickly that there were more than a few points where I had to take quick breather to make sure I’d followed how we got from point A to point F, when points B, C, D, and E had been given about ten seconds of screentime apiece. But as I was saying, about that concept: Jackie (Thomas Kash) is, in fact, in trouble. His full name is Jackie Robinson (which is the kind of name that it would be best not to give to a character, particularly a white character, if you’re not prepared to do something with it, and Jackie’s in Trouble doesn’t), and he has gotten himself mixed up with two groups of people you would prefer not have chasing you: first, he built something called a “phoenix box”, which has something to do with computer encryption, for a Canadian druglord known as “The Baroness”. And now her cartel is out to find and kill him. His cartel connections have brought him to the attention of the FBI, which has sent two agents to find and imprison him. With nowhere else to run, he returns to his hometown of Elkhorn, NY, to beg for help from a pair of old friends, Daniel (Jody Shenn) and Stubs (Brendan McGinn).
That is, anyway, the précis of the movie; the actuality is a great deal more freewheeling and ad hoc, with plot diversions including a sudden trip to Nunavut and a visit to a women’s study group (or something – I concede that I couldn’t quite parse that bit). It is very clearly a film on that “friends fucking around with a camera” production model I mentioned before, an impression fully solidified by a glance at the end credits: Kash, Shenn, and McGinn’s names keep showing up in different capacities (they all chipped in for story-writing and videography duties), alongside director/screenwriter Colin McCabe, who also produced, co-edited (with Kash), and served as sound designer. On top of playing FBI Agent Morgan, one of the two lawmen hunting for Jackie. I offer up this litany of, literally, amateur filmmaking prowess not to belittle the film, but simply to point out the kind of resources it had available to it; albeit that most no-budget movies don’t shell out for an aerial sequence, and if there is one aspect of the making of Jackie’s in Trouble that I’d really love to interrogate, it’s that they could afford a plane and pilot, but not a dedicated director of photography.
My point, anyways, is that this is, in a very real sense, not actually a film, and there’s hardly any sport in criticising some of its most salient flaws: the at times blown-out videotaped images, the common tendency among the cast to deliver their lines with a sort of impassioned monotone, as well as choosing just the damnedest words to emphasise, and the utterly impoverished sound editing. Near the end of the film, a car alarm goes off, and what had till that point been a shot/reverse shot conversation suddenly shifts to focusing entirely on Kash, and my very strong suspicion is that this was entirely due to the inability to cut that footage with reverse shots lacking the car alarm, mixed with a desire to avoid post-dubbing. And to be fair: at least McCabe noticed that he couldn’t intercut that footage; a truly incompetent filmmaker would have probably rolled the dice on it. As I was saying, though, these are all objective flaws, and yet criticising Jackie’s in Trouble for having them would be like criticising a four-week-old puppy with three legs for not being able to lead a sled dog team. Besides, I have a sneaking admiration for McCabe: he went the hell out and did it, and so what if it’s a sloppy mess. I myself have a sloppy mess of a no-budget video feature to my name, and not remotely enough self confidence to put it up on the internet for God and whole world to see.
That all being the case, Jackie’s in Trouble has woes that go beyond the fact that it was made for pocket change and hope. It’s a rather screwy piece of storytelling. Some scenes are ruthlessly chopped scenes into little fragments: the early meeting between G-men Morgan and Parker (Urs – just Urs. It would make my whole week if I could report to you that it was a man in a bear suit, but alas no) and their boss (Joe McCabe, whose surname I suspect is probably not a coincidence) is marred not just by the too-casual “co-workers out for TGIF drinks who can’t quite stop talking about work” vibe of the dialogue, but also the way that it has been apparently reduced from a longer rush of exposition, primarily through the expediency of dissolving from a shot to a later part of the same shot. Scenes are missing, and their content can only inferred by the logic that if we were there and we are now here, then there’s probably only one path that got us there. The more that conflicts pile up, the clearer it is that 63 minutes isn’t enough to escalate as much as the film wants to, and so it feels like we’ve taken a running jump off of a cliff. And since I’m ragging on the writing already, might as well mention the dialogue: it veers from the overly florid if not histrionic (“It’s the Baroness herself!” – and by the way, “the Baroness”? Some words sound cool, and others will always sound exactly like you stole them from G.I. Joe no matter how cool they sound) all the way over to the enormously functional and bland, as when Daniel and Stubbs spend time catching up on the state of Daniel’s marriage before he remembers that oh right, we’re here to talk about our friend on the run from the cartels.
There’s an undeniable shaggy charm, though. It is a bunch of guys hanging out and goofing around, after all, and to a certain degree, it feels like being an invader just watching the movie, let alone writing about it. The speed with which the plot kicks by and the attempt to Go Big with action scenes that the filmmakers haven’t the resources to execute properly suggest a lot of enthusiasm behind the camera. At times, McCabe, or whoever was responsible for setting up the shots (with no fewer than six people credited for “cameras”, it’s safer not to make sweeping generalisations about the aesthetic principals behind the imagery), demonstrates a fair eye for a dramatic image: there are a lot of close-ups and interior rooms where everybody is sitting too close to walls, obvious hallmarks of first-timers, but there are some impressive deep-staging moments in hallyways or other spaces larger than a living room. And the exteriors are, by and large, actually interesting, with the natural light combining with the foggy black-and-white video to create some surprisingly interesting harsh white moments, perhaps as if ’50s crime movies had decided to spend time in blazing hot daylight rather than damp urban nights – film blanc, as it were. At any rate, for all the goofy, sloppy overreach in the story and its inexplicable swerves, it’s easy to tell that the people making this were having a good time, and there’s not clearly any other goal that Jackie’s in Trouble sets for itself. Given how tiny it is within the wide world of cinema, there’s certainly no other goal that one could appropriately demand of it.