Arrow Video: Jake Speed (1986) - Reviewed

While influences on the adventures of the Indiana Jones character can be traced to dozens of cinematic influences dating back to the 1930s, a curious side effect of the series began to take shape in the mid-80s.  Not only did Raiders of the Lost Ark renew interest in the swashbuckling action adventure pulp serial fiction film replete with fast talking heroes in an exotic setting, death defying stunts and a hazardous rescue/heist mission of sorts, it spawned a subgenre of pictures clearly modeling themselves after Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film.  Among those quick to cash in on the gravy train started by Raiders were Romancing the Stone, Crocodile Dundee, the Allan Quatermain movies and last but not least, the 1986 satirical action adventure Jake Speed.

Written, produced and directed by eventual Lonely Hearts filmmaker Andrew Lane and co-written by the film’s main actor Wayne Crawford, Jake Speed inhabits a curious spot in the pulp fiction serial adventure subgenre not unlike Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride which wants to be straightforward and a send up at the same time.  Before joining in on the misadventures of Jake (Wayne Crawford) and his sidekick Desmond Floyd (Dennis Christopher), the film follows Margaret Winston (Karen Kopins) whose sister Maureen was abducted in Paris and sold to a British white slaver in Africa named Sid (John Hurt).  Margaret and family pray for her safe rescue and return, but not before grandfather chimes in they should enlist the help of Jake Speed.  The problem is he’s just a character in popular fictional action adventure novels, or is he?

Released by New World Pictures, Jake Speed is somewhat hard to gauge as to whether or not it’s a straight-laced parody, an action adventure film with a wacky sense of humor or both.  What is notable is that wisecracking Jake Speed doesn’t have a whole lot of screen presence in the shoes of Wayne Crawford who does a serviceable job though one has to wonder what the picture might have been with Bruce Willis cast as originally planned in place.  Karen Kopin as the damsel-in-distress doesn’t help matters with more screaming, fighting with the hero and crying than Kate Capshaw’s heroine from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  John Hurt does much of the heavy lifting in a rare villainous turn that will leave you wanting for more, though Mr. Hurt unfortunately doesn’t show up until late into the picture.

Where Jake Speed shines, however, are in the Parisian and African locations, notably Zimbabwe.  Though some of the settings and visual references are indeed dated, there aren’t many movies which try to transpose Giorgio Moroder’s Maniac from the film Flashdance into an exotic setting.  Fans of The X Files are inclined to perk their ears up for Mark Snow’s original electronic keyboard score which doesn’t reinvent the wheel but whose whistling synthetic notes will remind some of the impending hit sci-fi series.  Then there are the action stunts, including a Jeep driving through tight corridors and an extended chase sequence in the African countryside, that look so dangerous they rival some of the stunts of Spielberg’s picture.  Our hero Jake also winds up in a lion’s den at one point, recalling some of the fears generated by Noel Marshall’s utterly insane Roar.

Although efforts to promote the film went so far as to create a movie tie-in novelization replete with the film’s fictional novelist penning the book, Jake Speed opened to meager box office returns with middling next to negative reviews.  Special attention was given to Hurt’s turn as arch nemesis, but even now the film is a bit difficult to fully pin down.  Whether or not the film succeeds as satire, straightforward genre thriller or neither, where it does excel as being a slice of B-movie entertainment not to be taken too seriously.  Though underexplored given the film’s premise, the idea of fictional heroes in pulp serial junk food coexisting in the real world as real people is a unique one.  Jake Speed doesn’t quite take the concept as far as it can go but we mostly have fun with it anyway.

--Andrew Kotwicki