EUFF Review: 'Jack Strong'

Jack Strong
(Poland, 128 min.)
Written and directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski
Starring: Marcin Dorocinski, Maja Ostaszewska, Patrick Wilson, Dimitri Bilov, Dagmara Dominczyk
Now here’s a full-bodied spy thriller! Jack Strong might be the closest thing to mainstream cinema that one will find at this year’s European Union Film Festival, but hard-core cinephiles shouldn’t feel the least be worried that the beloved EUFF has gone commercial. This Polish spy game is one heck of flick. Jack Strong, made for a modest budget of less than four million dollars and co-financed by the Polish Film Institute, is understandably something that Poland might choose to represent its national cinema at this year’s celebration of EU currents. The film could easily be mistaken for an adaptation of John le Carré, since it’s a steely psychological mind game with riveting atmosphere and crackling suspense.

Jack Strong easily stands above many of the Hollywood spy films with which one might assimilate it. It stands more on par with smart Brit pics like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and A Most Wanted Man (hence the le Carré likeness) since it’s smarter than the average fare and solidly composed. Jack Strong, built like a bullet, is sharp and deadly.

The film stings extra hard since the espionage is ripped from a real life case in which a respected Polish army colonel named Ryszard Kuklinski (played by Marcin Dorocinski) goes rogue and decides to aid the Americans when his duties with the Polish army hint at a possible World War III. Kuklinski, code named Jack Strong by his American contact, Daniel (Patrick Wilson, who seems to speak Polish surprisingly well), stealthily accesses top-secret materials since he’s largely respected for his support of Poland since his missions during the Cold War. Working in close confines with a small number of people quickly tips off higher-ranking officers and Soviet contacts, so word gets out that there’s a mole in the inner circle leaking intel to the Yankees.

Jack Strong has a potent ambiance of paranoia as Kuklinski engages in a game of spy versus spy and liaises with Daniel and his American contact in Poland, Sam (Dagmara Dominczyk, The Immigrant) to out-manoeuver his increasingly suspicious colleagues. Jack Strong increases the tension of this true story by unfolding it within the frames of an interrogation in 1997 in which a bearded and beleaguered Kuklinski explains his actions. The outcome of his own life might be evident from the outset, but the interviews increasingly put the fates of Kuklinski’s family in question as it cuts back and forth between flashbacks of the father risking everything to save his family and “present day” sequences in which he either seems to have everything on the line or everything already lost. The personal and psychological toll of Kuklinski’s cooperation is tangible in the cold isolation one feels watching the character crumble as he skirts closer and closer to detection.

Dorocinski gives an impressively layered performance as the landmark spy. Kuklinski is a regular George Smiley when Jack Strong begins, for he is cool and detached, calculating the odds and observing the room like an old pro. The more he delves into the work, however, and the more it becomes imperative for him to hide, the more Dorocinski unmasks his character’s poker face as he ships out information on the sly. The film builds Kuklinski’s devotion as a father into a metaphor of any one person’s responsibility to the next generation, and Jack Strong lets Kuklinski become the smarter spy as he wills himself to invest his emotions into the mission. By the end, Kuklinski shows a level of humanity that one rarely sees in cinematic spies.

The personal stakes also double for the complex political backdrop that writer/director Wladyslaw Pasikowski conveys with surprising dexterity without having to lay out the facts bluntly. Each altercation, even those between spies of the same faction, is fraught with paranoia: the tensions of the Cold War prevail even though it’s the 1980s as fears of Russian/Afghan ties reignite testy USA/Soviet relations. Jack Strong spins a global web of lies and deception as the mission assumes graver implications and brings unexpected consequence once Jack and his family seem safe.

This expertly-produced thriller is also just as entertaining as it is substantial. Pasikowski goes easy on the action, yet the film is consistently riveting for the ambiance and suspense that lurks in every scene. Coolly composed cinematography and a strong ensemble keep this character-driven thriller atmospheric and engaging. The film also features one first-rate car chase, as nearly all good spy movies do, for one climactic spree through the slippery streets of Warsaw toys with the fats of Kuklinski, his wife, and their children as some shrewd cutting plays with time and perception. The crackerjack sequence alone is better than the intense action sequences in Jack’s American equivalents. Jack Strong seems to have outsmarted his American allies in the cinematic spy game: this is one stealthy thriller!

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Jack Strong screens at the European Union Film Festival on Saturday, Nov. 22 at 7:00 pm at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St.

The European Union Film Festival runs Nov. 13-30.
Please visit www.cfi-icf.ca for more information on this year’s festival.