Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: JAKE SPEED (1986)

The post-RAIDER’S feeding frenzy really hit its apex after the release of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. At the time this was considered an epic fail of major proportions following the superior in every way, RAIDER'S OF THE LOST ARK, but now we look back on TEMPLE with misty-eyed nostalgia. It’s amazing what a truly horrendous modern sequel will do for your perspective. TEMPLE OF DOOM was released in May of 1984 and recouped its $28 million budget in its first weekend with more than a little change left over. By October of the same year it had pulled in over six times that number making it a certified blockbuster, quality be damned! Interestingly a high-profile Indiana Jones knock-off actually beat TEMPLE OF DOOM to theaters one month. ROMANCING THE STONE was released in April of ’84 with a high-profile cast and crew and a much lighter, freewheeling tone courtesy of writer Diane Thomas who died in a car accident shortly after seeing her first screenplay produced. Budgeted at $10 million it only recouped half of that on opening weekend, but became a sleeper hit and went on to make over 7 times its budget by October. This means that technically, in spite of pulling in $100 million fewer dollars than TEMPLE OF DOOM, ROMANCING THE STONE was every bit as successful.

Since ROMANCING THE STONE was a certified hit (and yes, there is a remake slated for next year), you can see what looms on the horizon… Yes, it’s Six Degrees of Indiana Jones! In May of 1986, New World pictures released what they were sure would be their big cash-in on the post Indy craze. While I can’t seem to find any info on the budget, it certainly wasn’t huge, but it was probably more than the paltry $1 million dollars it pulled in on its opening weekend. To be fair, 1986 was a banner year for Hollywood films with so many instant classics battling it out that there was no way JAKE SPEED wouldn’t get trampled underfoot. With TOP GUN, COBRA and POLTERGEIST II already in theaters and films like BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, ALIENS and, errm, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE looming on the horizon, JAKE SPEED needed to bring it, not sing it. It didn’t.

The premise is essentially some bon à rien French people (are there any other kind?) have kidnapped a cute, blond college girl for a white slave ring. The government is talking and stalling and generally being ineffectual (is someone still bitter about the Carter administration?). The girl’s sister, Margaret Winston (Karen Kopins), is distraught and her grandfather (who you know is kooky because he wanders around in his bathrobe while the rest of the family is dressed up and having a rather elaborate dinner) suggests that she call on Jake Speed to solve her problems. Margaret discovers that ol’ grandad’s Jake Speed is an action novel hero (remember those “book” things?). Margaret is so overwrought that she decides to pass on a cocktail party where everyone is dressed up as their favorite animal… except her and her friend. After receiving a cryptic note via the bottom of her friend’s shoe, and seeing a plethora of advertisements with the word “speed” in them, Margaret hikes up her shorts and heads to a seedy dock bar to meet book author Desmond Floyd (Dennis Christopher) and his legendary subject, Jake Speed (Wayne Crawford). After much pushing and pulling the duo convince Margaret to go with them on an adventure and rescue her sister.

The movie is flawed at its very core. Director and star, Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford, respectively, wrote a screenplay that lifts the “writing a novel” element from ROMANCING THE STONE and tries to turn it into THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985), but can't seem to figure out how to make it work. Most of the film takes place in small sets that are supposedly in Africa and hints are dropped here and there that Jake Speed might actually be a fictional character and that Desmond may actually be writing the adventure that they are living as they live it. These hints are few and far between and as much as I enjoy some solid ambiguity, these hints are so vague and intermittent that there is not even enough data to formulate a hypothesis on why certain things are happening. I firmly believe that JAKE SPEED set the groundwork for the much more successfully handled LAST ACTION HERO (1993), which actually treads some of the same ground but lets the audience in on the joke. In LAST ACTION HERO, Danny knows that the house is going to blow up, both cops are dead and Jack will be unscratched. He knows this because he’s seen the movie he’s living in and the audience knows this too. In JAKE SPEED, Desmond knows that an armored vehicle drop should take place at a certain spot, but we don’t know why or how he knows that. Is it because he wrote it, or is it because their services extend beyond themselves and Desmond actually is simply writing a book about their adventure? Who knows? I'm not sure if even Lane and Crawford did.

The flaws in the script, such as the weak sexual tension, shrill banter and “city girl in the wild” theme that apes ROMANCING THE STONE, are really only second to the flaws in the casting. Wayne Crawford’s weak-kneed portrait of an action hero manages to generate a staggering deficit of charisma. There isn’t a moment where you think that this guy could chew bubble gum, much less kick ass and his delivery of the dialogue is so limp that throws Kopins’ over-the-top histrionics into sharp relief. To paraphrase the only brilliant quote to ever grace the lips of one Roger Ebert, “an action film is only as good as its villain.” Here our villain is plopped into the thinly plotted story during the last half hour of the movie, he doesn’t even make a cameo or is even referred to until two-thirds of the movie is over! Back in the day when it was a novelty to miscast John Hurt, here he makes up for the complete lack of character substance by doing the hambone, grinning, cackling villain routine, who randomly shoots people instigating “comic” scenes where his fussy gay brother obsesses not over the freshly shot corpse, but the blood that has been soaked into his priceless Persian rug. This scene has been played out so much better so many times before, even in 1988. And that brings up the other major issue; that Mr. Speed is fighting…

...bad comedy. The humor is so forced and badly delivered that there are points where you will either wonder why there isn’t a laugh track or wonder if that was really supposed to be a joke. The parts where you know it is supposed to be a joke is like the bit where the lead characters go into an African village bar and there is a short, obese woman doing a slow, pathetic imitation of Jennifer Beals’ famous scene from FLASHDANCE (1983). It's one of those moments that are probably better suited to a low-brow Asian comedy, but I'm sure there were lots chuckles in theaters at the time. Then there are scenes like the one where Jake tries to sell Margaret to the white slavers in order to follow them back and rescue both girls. The scene goes back and forth with Jake trying to sell her to two sleazy customers (one of whom is the mighty Ken Gampu) and Margaret, horrified, squeals, shrieks, slaps and finally resorts to exclaiming that no one would want her because she has “VD”! When one of the buyers asks “what kind?” she starts listing various venereal diseases and then finally says “all of them!” To which the reply is, “that’s perfect, so do I!” Wah-wah-waaaaaah! Man, lemme tell ya, it is a looooooong walk to that sorry-ass punchline.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there really isn’t much in the way of action to break up the lamefest. There quick snippets here and there. An exploding car, an exploding wall, but not really much in the way of action sequences. We are expected to sit though so many tedious character scenes, that the few minutes of action at very end of the film is way too little, too late. Even then, when we finally get our dramatic escape sequence, it's a pretty weak chase scene and it's pretty much like what you would expect from a syndicated TV show of the time. Though, I admit, no flowerpots were harmed.

While this movie has gotten a little bit of a following on video, it's still a pretty piss poor excuse for a third-rate Indy wannabe. Proceed at your own peril.

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