Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Jake Speed

  Let me get this out of the way, this is not an Indiana Jones knock-off, rip-off, or imitation. It doesn't even have a hint of Indiana Jones. Not even. It has more in common with the themes present in Last Action Hero than it does with Indiana Jones. When the eponymous Dr.Jones makes it to paperback novelization, and becomes as iconic in print as he was on the silver screen... then we can start making comparisons. Not before then.  Jake Speed however, is about heroes. Old fashioned heroes who had sidekicks, like Dr.Watson to Sherlock Holmes. Heroes who didn't need to get paid to rescue a damsel in distress, guys who take the hard way... because it "reads better!"

  I heard about this movie in an old movie reviews book from the 80's a long time ago in a dusty old library run out of the basement of a big church. I was flipping through, reading reviews and... the title "Jake Speed" stuck out to me. It sounded like a comic book hero. As it turns out, I wasn't far off. In the movie, an American woman is kidnapped in Africa, and her family has no idea who to turn to for help. The government isn't being much use, and they're desperate. Yet, at a rather glum family dinner, good ol' grandpa says he knows exactly who can help get her back. Guys like, "Remo, and Jake Speed..." Of course, someone asks "Who?", and without skipping a beat, he presents a stack of dime store paperback novels with the flashy action packed covers and the catchy taglines.

  These are the guys grandpa suggests to help. Fictional heroes. Guys who fight evil no matter where it is. Of course, everyone dismisses him as a senile old man, but the woman's sister, Margaret, gets a mysterious phone call that soon has her face to face with a guy claiming not only that he can rescue her sister, but that he is in fact... the real Jake Speed. The movie takes off from there, as Jake, his sidekick Des, and Margaret race to Africa to save her sister from white slave traders, and "a couple thousand poisonous snakes"...
if they're lucky. See, Margaret is enamoured with the idea of a paperback hero who can come to the rescue, she wants to believe that guys like that exist. Yet, the realist side of her is in constant doubt of Jake. Wondering if he's some sort of con artist or something.

  On the other hand, Jake and Des don't dodge the fact they have books written about them. They're always trying to do what "reads well" instead of taking the practical way out. Which means lots of bar fights and shootouts and the like. Margaret, in one of many arguments with Jake, asks him if he's so real... why hasn't anyone made a movie about him? Of course, he simply retorts that Hollywood types are a pain to work with. I wanted to believe Jake was indeed Jake as much as Margaret did. The movie strings you along, doling out doubt in small doses here and there... but after a certain point, you don't care if he is a real Jake Speed. Because regardless, he's a real hero. The movie has a certain charm to it. It's the kind of 50 cent find that makes you feel like you've found a lost treasure.

  However, the movie is not without it's flaws. For one, Wayne Crawford is terribly miscast as Jake Speed himself. The dude's biggest hit on imdb was the writer's credit for Valley Girl. He looks like a sitcom dad, not a paperback action hero. He has a... low rent brand of charisma that makes him likeable enough to enjoy the movie, but you can't help but wonder what it would've been like with a better leading man in the role. Crawford just barely cuts it. You'd almost think he wrote the role for himself (he did write the role regardless) as a way to break into the 'Michael Douglas' bracket of psuedo-action stars. He never quite gets there, but he's charming enough that you enjoy the movie. I've said that twice already for lack of a better compliment. He's not bad in the role, but it sure as hell should have been someone else. Wayne Crawford is nobody's idea of an ideal action hero.

  Secondly, the pacing in the first half of the movie is really languid. This is an action movie, yet I don't think any action actually happens until almost forty minutes into the flick. It's ridiculous. However, I think this was probably a budgetary thing and not a misstep with the script. It feels like they saved the budget for the climax, and in my opinion... it paid off. The movie ends with a huge bang, and you're left with a good impression. You feel like you've had a really good time, and if you stuck around- you probably really have.
Next issue though is the story. The concept of the missing sister is fine, but this movie is too lighthearted for it. The hero is constantly procrastinating and taking the hard way to do things because it would read better in a paperback novel- yet human lives are hanging in the balance. He often comes off as irresponsible instead of witty. Had this been a treasure hunt movie instead, like Firewalker with Chuck Norris- I can understand that. But it's not. It's a movie where innocent people can die, a movie that is centered around human slave trading, and... this is lighthearted?

  The movie is at odds with itself for most of the time. I feel like these flaws could've been ironed out with a few more drafts of the script, or a better director behind the camera, but they weren't. However, the movie is a lot of fun, and however unintentional it might have been, juxtaposing a old fashioned good guy and the lighthearted adventurous tone of the movie, against a cutthroat villain (albeit an occasionally cartoonish one) and some very dark themes creates an interesting vibe. It's almost thought provoking. Almost. You wonder if old fashioned heroics like that can ever succeed in the real world. The side of you that wishes heroes like that exist, wants to say "yes", but the side of you that's stuck in reality 24/7 is far more skeptical. The movie however is content to deliver a happy and optimistic ending, leaving you on a hopeful note.

  So, is Jake Speed a good movie? I'd say so. It has enough fun and adventure to warrant a watch. The climax is simply awesome. A huge destructive shootout at the bad guy's lair, complete with James Bondian dialog, secret traps, man-eating lions, and a jeep with machine guns mounted on either side of it. Also, Jake has this amazingly badass shotgun he totes around through the movie, and eventually you realize he's named his shotgun. I didn't catch the name, but how cool is that? Not only did he name his shotgun, he goes back for it when he loses it. I hate it when the good guys leave their cool weapons behind in movies. That scene alone made me smile. The movie is pretty self aware, and I think it avoids most awful pitfalls a genre movie like this could fall into, sure it's as full of plot holes as the bad guys are full of buckshot... but despite being pretty flawed, it's funny, charming, and just flat out fun. I'd gladly trade most big budget box office action movies of the past two decades for just a few more good-natured adventure flicks like Jake Speed.

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