Michael Caton-Jones has never understood how film can be structured to yield the most power and suspense; when forced at financial gunpoint to re-edit, as he was even before the last echo of audience laughter had faded after advance screenings of Scandal, he can turn out effective but pointless intelligent-action pictures. The Jackal, an updating of The Day of the Jackal, is sluggish, confusing, and slack; even without Caton-Jones’ flair for the plodding, how can a movie sustain suspense over two-plus hours and star Bruce Willis?

Willis, the international superassassin who calls himself the Jackal, is contracted by evil Russians—surely even the scriptwriters are getting tired of cartoon Slav bad guys?—to take out an important American figure. The reason no one can catch the Jackal is that no one has ever seen him—no one, that is, except conscience-plagued IRA sharpshooter Declan Mulqueen, now property of the U.S. penal system.

They don’t get any cuter than Richard Gere these days; aging has done wonders for his screen presence—now controlled, relaxed, and strong—not to mention his looks. Amused and serious, he underplays Mulqueen against the frothing FBI agents and do-right Russian good guys who brought him in (notably Diane Venora in the not very forgiving role of a tough-but-tender lady agent. Hint: Her first name, reluctantly confessed, is Valentina). Although they don’t meet until the showdown, Mulqueen and Jack are the film’s principals, and Willis looks especially ridiculous doing his zombified tough kewpie act when there’s so much determined work around him.

As Willis plays him, the Jackal is a man of two disguises: with mustache and without. His sly manner of checking out a passenger’s open bag (at the “HELSINKI AIRPORT”—this is the kind of movie that heralds the location every time a character so much as repairs to the can) would have the least observant flier running for security. The Jackal is also a very lucky dog—the open-bag guy not only misses the fact that someone is openly ogling his passport but decides this would be a good moment to leave all his stuff and get some more coffee. This sort of thing happens over and over, until kids in the audience must be pressing Dad for a pair of infrared goggles and an ID kit—being the Jackal isn’t just lucrative, it’s easy!

The FBI and Russian agents follow Mulqueen from country to country as he sniffs out the Jackal’s presence, hoping to find him before he offs his target, who for some reason is kept secret until we and the trackers discover the guy’s name together. Why they’re not quicker about pinpointing the Jackal, a man who’s bought uranium, a made-to-order missile mount, a Gatling gun of superior power and range, and a remote-control system to operate it (how powerful is it? The on button reads “power/caution”) is not a question the movie’s prepared to answer.

Instead, it dawdles, stumbles, and prevaricates. The Jackal tests his big gun on a pumpkin harvested in midsummer. Early on, Caton-Jones openly rips off both The Untouchables and The Long Goodbye—in the same scene. Willis turns around slowly, a Mickey Rourkish jowly, purse-lipped smirk playing on his face, so many times that moviegoers were practicing the look on each other on their way out. The screenplay is ruthless about its slaughter quotient—after a massacre involving many of the characters we’d been following, the girl next to me snicked disappointedly, “Who’s next, the audience?” And if The Jackal sounds intriguing because it’s set in Washington, don’t hope for much actually filmed here—from the Metro stations to the fake federal building steps, it’s Hollywood-made.

“I possess certain powers and abilities far beyond those of so-called normal human beings,” says Bob Flanagan in his prose-poem “Superman,” and he’s right. Most every other human being diagnosed at birth with cystic fibrosis has neither the guts nor the luck to live, as Flanagan did, to 42 with the disease, and to become a writer, poet, performer, and artist along the way.

If CF was the curse Flanagan lived under, an elaborate, intelligent, and playful taste for sadomasochistic sex was the temporal antidote; Flanagan was like Sleeping Beauty, his prophesied doom alleviated by a perverse escape clause. Sick is his story, told with compassion but no sentiment by documentarian Kirby Dick, who was also a friend of the Flanagan household, which consisted of Bob and his longtime girlfriend, the performance artist and well-known dominatrix Sheree Rose.

Flanagan’s attraction to deliberately inflicted pain was as organic as the disease—more organic, in fact, since without CF he probably would have grown to be a strong, healthy masochist instead of an ailing one. He recalls hanging from his bedroom door to relax as a child, and his healthy gay brother admits in interviews that he always felt like a secret freak and that this guilt and furtiveness manifested itself as rebellion, while good brother Bob was perceived as the obedient child, only his coughing intrusive. Bob’s brother moans that he hadn’t even had anal sex when Bob’s bizarre proclivities publicly emerged.

Dick talks to the Flanagan parents and to Bob and Sheree, and observes the couple at work and play. The interviews with outsiders are not terribly revelatory; it’s hard enough for Flanagan and Rose to explain their relationship and their art. First, they must work their way through misconceptions and prurience, and, being honest people, they often find themselves back at these misconceptions once the explaining is done. After all, as a sadist, Rose of course thinks masochists “are the coolest people,” and if she and Bob find their power balance sexy, it’s natural that others would, too.

But their art is the most eloquent expression of their experiences together and apart, and Dick is scrupulous about showing us lots of it, even footage of a younger Bob reading the “Fuck Journals” Rose forced him to keep or singing his scabrous, death-haunted folk songs. Rose speaks before her monumental Wall of Pain, hundreds of small black-and-white photographs of Flanagan, all printed from a single 36-shot roll of film taken as he was hit with one of, she thinks, 13 different implements; they have to use it as a backdrop—the display hangs behind their couch. Flanagan demonstrates his personalized “Visible Man,” the old anatomy toy doctored to emit realistic glop—including massive streams of mucus, the most identifiable manifestation of CF—from the appropriate orifice.

Throughout his life, Flanagan was viewed as a kind of Visible Man, as a case or means of experiment, and his S&M activities helped him reclaim this status by choice, with Rose acting the mad doctor and Flanagan her happy patient on the slab. In one sequence called Autopsy, Rose traces their history together by running her strong hands over his scarred flesh and talking him (but really us) through some difficult-looking trussing and stuffing. She refreshes her initials, carved around his nipples, strangles him just enough, and jams a huge metal ball into his anus, all the while keeping up a soothing stream of talk—”You just want to scare them a little,” she croons, running a knife over his penis—and stroking his legs and chest. The scene is reminiscent of a crafts or cooking show, with the narration alternating from calming to advisory—”Success!” she cries perkily when the metal ball goes in.

If you’ve ever wondered what kind of whip frolics people like this engage in, Autopsy is one example, but it’s frustratingly undecorative. For all of Flanagan’s talk of how this stuff excites him, we never actually see him excited (there are laws against this), but it’s hard not to believe him when he reads from his work. For such a deliberately scruffy piece of work, Sick is beautifully edited; every time Dick allows intimations of the high-gloss leather-and-flesh world we recognize as S&M from advertising, the film pulls back and becomes Bob and Sheree’s very human story once again. As Bob’s health fails, leaving him nearly immobile, Sheree whines, “I need you to submit to me. It’s something I need psychologically.”

Over two disturbing sequences, Dick watches Bob and Sheree interact with a teenage CF patient from Canada who is dilettantishly allured by Bob’s famed indulgences and wishing to meet her idol. (It was the Make-a-Wish Foundation that enabled their meeting; talk about the mainstreaming of kink.) The first time, they meet her with her mother, who dismisses the S&M side of her daughter’s attraction to Bob, while young Sarah unemphatically insists on it. Then Bob and Sheree riff on imprisoning and seducing Sarah; later she returns to have the couple accompany her to having her nipples pierced. Sarah’s naive casting of Bob and Sheree as her leather-clad godparents is the most disturbing aspect of Sick.

Except for the leisurely sequence in which Flanagan nails his penis to a board. (The actual nailing isn’t as bad as what happens when he pulls the nails out.) In between the art exhibits, the philosophizing, and the visits with his parents, there’re the activities, and no amount of talk or artistic distancing can make sense of these. The power of these scenes (or shots—many of them are filmed photographs) is in their unspectacular ordinariness; without slick, lurid trappings they’re shockingly still and ordinary: Bob’s scrotum neatly sutured up, Bob covered in black wax, his mouth sewn up, his groin scorched, his neck garroted…

It is impossible to make Flanagan into a cuddly, accessible masochist; his honesty about his tastes and their expression never allowed him to pass for the pervert you could take home to mother. Dick’s project is brave, but Bob was even braver, confessing and teasing in the same sentence, unwilling or unable to let the public see everything inside the Visible Man.CP