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HBO's You Don't Know Jack -- namely Kevorkian -- moves Pacino further up the pantheon

Al Pacino and Brenda Vaccaro as Jack and sister, Margo. HBO photos

An oddly trivializing title doesn't deter HBO's You Don't Know Jack from brilliantly recapturing his appointed rounds.

Al Pacino's portrayal of Jack "Dr. Death" Kevorkian re-cements him as his generation's foremost actor. Compatriot Robert DeNiro long had a lead on him. But while he stoops to a third Meet the Fokkers movie (currently in post-production), Pacino preps to play King Lear after first inhabiting Kevorkian to the point where it's easy to forget it's Pacino. That's the goal with any role, but quite an undertaking with this one.

The two hour, 15 minute film, directed by the amply accomplished Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Wag the Dog), premieres Saturday, April 24th at 8 p.m. (central) on the eve of -- can it be?! -- Pacino's 70th birthday.

It's based in part on Between the Dying and the Dead, whose co-author, Neal Nicol, was Kevorkian's assistant and is played in the film by John Goodman. That wouldn't make for a very zippy title. But You Don't Know Jack in its original incarnation was a party game that in 2001 briefly became a TV series hosted by Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens. Maybe a title such as Life and Dr. Death would have worked better? Just a thought.

You Don't Know Jack begins in 1990, with the 61-year-old Kevorkian shopping for spare parts to build his "Mercitron Machine." He's haunted by the death of his mother, who lingered in life while in constant, extreme pain. Kevorkian wants the terminally ill to have the last word on when they'll die.

His first in a long line of willing patients is Janet Adkins, an Alzheimer's sufferer who wants to cash it in before she no longer recognizes anybody or anything. Kevorkian doesn't cash in, brusquely telling a simpatico Detroit reporter, "You don't charge people for something like this."

His older sister, Margo Janus (Brenda Vaccaro), also is an ally and -- along with Neal Nicol -- an accomplice. Vaccaro is every bit Pacino's equal in this pivotal role, enduring Kevorkian's eccentricities and occasional rages with as much grace as one can muster. They finally have it out in a Big Boy restaurant, where he unforgivably lashes her in a prolonged scene that underscores Kevorkian's decidedly ignoble dark side. They reconcile after she's fired from her day job.

"What happened?" he asks.

"I'm your sister. What else?" she says.

The real-life Kevorkian with his death machine and on 60 Minutes.

The first assisted suicide, with Janet Adkins releasing the medication that quickly kills her, is carried out in the back of Jack's VW bus after Hemlock Society activist Janet Good (a solid Susan Sarandon) belatedly has to renege on an agreement to use her home as an incubator.

Volatile with friends and kin, Kevorkian is always tender with his patients. "It's not too late, my dear, you know," he tells Adkins. "We could stop right now. It wouldn't offend me."

This is a riveting, stark scene that ends with a final, heart-rending "thank you."

Kevorkian is soon on trial for the first of five times. His attorney, the cocksure Geoffrey Fieger (Danny Huston), works pro bono but doesn't at all mind the publicity. His constantly thwarted nemesis is prosecutor Dick Thompson (sturdy work by Cotter Smith), who can't withstand the emotional punch of the videos Kevorkian has recorded of patients begging him to end their pain-wracked lives.

"If we lay out the gut-wrenching emotions of it all, that's your golden ticket," Fieger assures him.

You Don't Know Jack obviously isn't a romantic comedy, although occasional light moments intervene. After fasting in his jail cell for three days, Kevorkian is bailed out by Fieger and offered a piece of pie.

"This is full of fat and sugar. You tryin' to kill me?" he retorts.

Kevorkian also becomes convinced that Barbara Walters is smitten with him after their interview. The real-life Walters is seen via archival footage, but not in the same frame with Pacino's Kevorkian. The illusion is repeated during his second and far more famous 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace, who is now infirm and off the air. The real-life Kevorkian is 81, still cantankerous and appeared earlier this month in a two-part interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper.

Kevorkian in part was plugging the HBO movie, as well he should. Pacino's full-immersion portrayal is virtually certain to bring him another best actor Emmy to go with the one he took home for his indelible turn as Roy Cohn in HBO's super-acclaimed Angels In America miniseries.

The long-overlooked and under-appreciated Vaccaro also looks like a lock for a best supporting actress Emmy. She's phenomenal as the mercurial Kevorkian's sounding board/guff-taker.

Meanwhile, HBO continues to have one of its very finest seasons in a long list of them. This weekend also brings new chapters of two other certain Emmy contenders, the miniseries The Pacific and the drama series, Treme. Plus, the network's recent Temple Grandin movie had a surefire Emmy-winning performance by Claire Danes.

That's a lot to offer subscribers in just a few months time. Now You Don't Know Jack joins the hit parade, with its title the only . . . oh, get over it.