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Kangaroo Jack

Director: David McNally
Cast: Jerry O'Connell, Anthony Anderson, Estella Warren, Christopher Walken, Dyan Cannon, Marton Csokas

(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 17 Jan 2003; 2003)

Comic Gravity

Fresh off his critically acclaimed performance in Catch Me If You Can, Oscar winner Christopher Walken is in a movie with a talking kangaroo.


It gets worse. Walken plays a gangster named Sal, stepfather to Charlie (Jerry O’Connell), through his marriage to Anna (Dyan Cannon, who might have half a line). Following an incident involving cops, car crashes, and a warehouse full of contraband, Sal sends Charlie and his longtime buddy Louis (the incessantly energetic Anthony Anderson) to Australia. They’re supposed to deliver $50,000 to another gangster named Mr. Smith (Marton Csokas). As soon as they reach Australia, they rent a jeep and head off to their destination. Within minutes, they’ve lost the money, which means that all the gangsters come after them—Smith with his Australian crew and Sal’s minion, Frankie the Vermin (Michael Shannon), with his New York one. (Imagine Battle of the Tough Guy Accents Here.)


And why is this wearisome plot set in Australia? The answer has to do with that talking kangaroo, who’s not really a talking kangaroo, but only a regular digitized kangaroo who talks—worse, performs “Rapper’s Delight”—in Charlie’s punch-in-the-head-induced hallucination of him. (I blame Snow Dogs.) Charlie and Louis come upon this kangaroo when they hit him with their rented jeep. Thinking he’s dead, they dress him up in sunglasses and Louis’ red sweatshirt so they can take snapshots with him (just why this seems like a good idea isn’t entirely clear). When it turns out the kangaroo isn’t dead, only stunned (or something), he starts awake and hops away, still wearing Louis’ sweatshirt, with the envelope full of money in the pocket.


While Louis is plainly the film’s center of comic gravity, it’s also clear that the folks who made this movie are mighty fond of their kangaroo, whom Charlie and Louis take to calling Jackie Legs because he resembles a gangster acquaintance from back home in New York (this backstory doesn’t mean anything, except that, like the Australia setting, it “develops” the boys’ relationship to the marsupial and further establishes his reason for being).


Jack’s performance—which mostly out-Scoobys Scooby-Doo’s—is reportedly cobbled together from appearances by several live red ‘roos and digital rendering. The digital effects supervisor, Hoyt Yeatman, describes the process by which an animation team (some 70 artists) computed virtual Jack’s 6 million individual hairs—and okay, the hairs on this creature do look pretty intense. He also manages humanish expressions, which means he does better than the guys playing the gangster sidekicks.


O’Connell and Anderson do a little better, but their roles are limited Charlie and Louis take their loss very seriously, and pursue Jack relentlessly: after they destroy their jeep, they hire (and crash) a plane, traipse across the desert on foot, and eventually, seek the help of a beautiful American girl, Jessie (sweet Estella Warren, whose thespian skills have not, alas, improved since her first outing in Planet of the Apes). She’s in Australia to save endangered wildlife. She also, conveniently, has a few extra camels and knows her way around the Outback, so she agrees to guide the boys to the ‘roos’ watering hole.


During this cross-country journey, Louis gets something of a run for his comedic money from Jessie’s camels. Apparently, their frequent farting struck someone on the screenwriting team—Steve Bing (best known as Liz Hurley’s child’s father) and Scott Rosenberg—as absolutely hilarious, and so the joke is allotted several minutes (which feel longer). By the time the punch-line comes, the joke is past expiration. [Stop reading now if you don’t want to know this punch-line.] And matching Louis’s bodily functions with those of the ostensibly horrific camels only underlines the film’s view of him as the physical joke butt.


More happily, Louis repeatedly breaks up the lethargic amour between the two white kids. It’s no secret that he and Charlie are Kangaroo Jack‘s primary couple, as their relationship is the one that must be tested and resolved. Still, Jessie and Charlie go through motions: while bathing in an idyllic pool, they find themselves inexorably drawn to one another, when, at the very “most sensual, romantic moment” of Charlie’s life, Louis cannonballs his way into the pool and the scene.


Most often cast as sidekicks, Anthony Anderson has shown repeatedly—in Two Can Play That Game, Exit Wounds, and Barbershop, among other films—that he can perform rings around supposed stars. That he can’t seem to get a role that’s not the “funny black guy” speaks not to his limits, but those around him. Then again, now he’s been in a movie with Christopher Walken.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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