Anthony Hopkins has left an indelible mark on movies in general, but of course he has a special place in horror fandom’s heart due to his portrayal of everyone’s favorite erudite connoisseur of human flesh, Hannibal Lecter. His horror bona fides don’t end there, however, as he’s played a demented ventriloquist in Magic, tried his hand at Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and hammed it all the way up in the criminally underrated remake of The Wolfman.
With all these options to choose from, you may then be asking yourself why I’ve decided to cover Freejack, a silly ’90s movie that leans far harder into sci-fi action than horror and is a movie that Hopkins himself has referred to as “a terrible film.” Well, first of all, it’s because this is my column and you’re not the boss of me. Second, it’s because although Freejack may be extremely uneven, it holds up as a heavy dose of pulpy fun that hits all the same notes for me now as it did when I was a kid.
Directed by Geoff Murphy, who’d just recently directed Freejack star Emilio Estevez in Young Guns II, the screenplay was written by Ron Shusett based on a novella he’d read in college called “Immortality, Inc.” by Robert Sheckley. In an interview he gave to the LA Times, Shusett recalled being horrified by the premise where rich people lengthened their lives by transferring their minds in the bodies of poor people.
With that background, one might think that Freejack is steering toward something of a heady morality play, and on paper there’s certainly some of that as the film introduces Alex Furlong (Estevez), a race car driver who we meet moments before he’s killed in a catastrophic wreck on the track. Or at least, that’s what it seems to those in attendance, including his girlfriend, Julie (Renee Russo).
In reality, in the split second before impact, Furlong is transported almost two decades into the future, where billionaire McCandless (Hopkins) has recently died and hopes to transfer his precariously preserved consciousness into Furlong’s body. Of course, Furlong wakes up and manages to escape before they can erase his mind, and he spends most of the film on the lam as a “freejack,” unaware of who or why someone has done this to him while trying desperately to reconnect with Julie.
There’s a lot at play here about the disparity between the rich and the poor that’s depressingly still relevant today, and even a sprinkle of discussion about identity and what defines the self. But a lot of the more contemplative elements crash headlong into a tone that borders on camp. Furlong’s adventures in 2009 New York City include encounters with a gun-toting nun played by Amanda Plummer, Frankie Faison as a philosophy-spouting homeless man, and his former racing manager played by a Buster Poindexter-era David Johansen. This all leads to Furlong finally reconnecting with Julie, who we are led to believe is almost 20 years older because she no longer wears her hair in a ponytail, I guess?
Of course, all of these notes pale in comparison to my favorite bit of stunt casting of all time, as the film’s primary antagonist is played by none other than Mick Jagger. As Victor Vacendak, the leader of the team tasked with finding Furlong, there’s not a moment where he’s on screen that you could see him as anything other than the frontman for The Rolling Stones.
But the craziest thing is that it somehow works. I think Jagger knows what he brings to the table for this kind of movie, so he’s not exactly trying to lose himself in the role. But to his credit, he put in some work to develop a backstory for Vacendak to help him wrap his mind around the character, and there’s a really fun antagonistic relationship between Estevez and Jagger as Vacendak chases Furlong all over the city. So while Jagger is essentially playing himself in futuristic clothes, his natural stage presence translates well to the screen.
If the movie loses some of its potency, it’s in the mishmash of not really knowing what it wants to be, which is likely due at least in part to reshoots demanded by the studio to incorporate more character beats, as Murphy’s original cut was surprisingly viewed as too action-oriented. Shusett actually stepped in to oversee a lot of the reshoots (much to Murphy’s chagrin), so the movie does seem to have some disjointed elements.
The mystery element behind who snatched Furlong, for example, seems a bit pointless given that the trailer all but gives Hopkins away as the villain and pre-release interviews explicitly out him as such. Plus, and I say this with all due respect, Hopkins is clearly phoning this one in. To be fair, this means he’s still putting in a better performance than most other actors, but between the fact that he spends relatively little time on screen and a subsequent appearance on David Letterman where he didn’t mince words on his opinion of the final product, I get the sense that he was putting in just enough effort to be able to make that house payment.
On the technical side, Freejack oozes ’90s-era sensibilities when it comes to depicting the future. Poorer neighborhoods are essentially a dystopian wasteland, while the wealthier areas feature that Future™ aesthetic you saw a lot at the time, including a fleet of sleek vehicles developed by Joe Alves that accounted for $500,000 of the film’s $30 million dollar budget. And when Furlong and Julie finally confront McCandless’ digital consciousness, there’s a lot of that New Age-y virtual reality thing going on with churches, desert landscapes, and I think a couple of doves in there for some reason.
I suppose ultimately why I still love Freejack so much is because it is such a ’90s movie, released in an era when they were playing with digital effects, but not yet leaning into CGI as we know it today. It’s also interesting to live a decade beyond the “future” depicted in the film and see what they got wrong (we still haven’t cracked time travel) and what they got right (billionaires will make life difficult for everyone else). And while it may not be the best-executed film of its ilk, it’s still trashy fun from which I can still indeed get satisfaction (come on, I needed at least one Stones pun).