Jake Speed Review
What if all those pulp heroes such as Remo Williams and Doc Savage really existed in the real world, ready to help those in need, and the books in which they appear are not purely fiction but true accounts of their fearless exploits? That’s the premise behind Jake Speed (1986), where a stranger suddenly turns up in the life of troubled Margaret Winston (Karen Kopins) claiming to be the titular hero from a series of rollicking paperback novels.
Margaret is distraught following the sudden disappearance of her sister Maureen (Becca Ashley) during a trip to Paris. The authorities have failed to locate the missing girl, but Speed (Wayne Crawford) reckons he’s just the man for the job. The problem is that Margaret doesn’t believe that Speed and his trusted sidekick Desmond (Dennis Christopher) are who they claim to be. She’s convinced that they are most likely to be just a pair of callous con artists, who have assumed the identity of fearless characters from a book as part of an elaborate scam. Nevertheless, Speed needs Margaret to cast her doubts aside and accompany him on a whirlwind trip across Africa, where he claims that her sister is being held by white slavers. The fact that the country is on the brink of a revolution is seemingly just a minor inconvenience to the rescue mission. Shambolic first impressions aside, he still has every confidence in locating Maureen. After all, he is the intrepid adventurer Jake Speed and not some two-bit phony – so what could possibly go wrong?
Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford were a pair of independent producers responsible for the well-received Nicolas Cage comedy Valley Girl (1983) and quirky low-budget favourite Night of The Comet (1984). Jake Speed became the duo’s next big screen venture – and it must have taken some tenacity for them to convince Roger Corman’s New World Pictures to invest in their globetrotting adventure. This was of course a famously thrifty outfit that once employed a young James Cameron to build space sets out of styrofoam fast food boxes for their Star Wars knock-off Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), so the thought of part-funding a far more ambitious project overseas must have filled New World with some trepidation.
The original UK poster for Jake Speed promised “Braver than Bond, bigger than Biggles, Indiana than Jones (and more romantic than stoned) – he’s just too good to be true”. That tagline may allude to the film being superior to several box office hits, but don’t believe a word. Despite the filming location, this is most definitely no African Queen either. Think more along the lines of King Solomon’s Mines, though sadly not the fondly regarded 1950 classic with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr, but the shoddy Richard Chamberlain version – where poor Sharon Stone had the indignity of being dunked in a giant cooking pot.
Having lowered expectations accordingly, it’s fair to say that this send-up isn’t nearly as awful as some scathing reviews suggested upon its initial release. Co-writer and star Crawford got much of the blame for the film’s box office failure, with critics citing his lack of charisma. Without a doubt he doesn’t have the inimitable charm of Harrison Ford, or the familiar swagger of Kurt Russell, but he’s not terrible in the role. There are moments when the parody is played just about right, other times it falls flat. Whenever the pace starts to flag, there’s another uninspired frenetic action sequence. If only they had taken more time to sharpen the script and given Speed some killer one-liners for every time he flashes that inane grin, this could have been so much better.
The film does have a decent supporting cast, even if some of them are woefully under-used, particularly Donna Pescow – so memorable as Annette in Saturday Night Fever, here given a paltry minor role as Margaret’s best friend. Dennis Christopher, best known for cycling drama Breaking Away (1979), adds value as Speed’s associate Des – comically seen at one point hastily typing up their daily heroic acts for the next novel. The slapdash narrative perks up later with the welcome appearance of John Hurt, playing criminal mastermind Sid – and there aren’t many screen bad guys bearing that name. He’s a scoundrel who doesn’t mess around stroking furry white cats while making idle threats. Instead his mansion conceals a feature that no supervillain’s lair should be without – a trap door with a pride of ferocious lions waiting beneath. Perfect for when your archenemy calls round on the off-chance for afternoon tea.
Jake Speed does benefit from some attractive location work around Zimbabwe, combined with Norm Baron’s effective production design, which manages to stretch a very limited budget. Despite the film’s shortcomings - and there are many - it’s not without some agreeable silliness. I enjoyed Sid’s fastidious brother Maurice (Roy London), who scolds him for shooting enemies inside the house (because it might leave stains on the rugs). Another amusing aspect is Speed’s shabby hotel room, which gets more ramshackle as the film progresses. That’s not forgetting what must surely be the most peculiar rendition of Michael Sembello’s eighties hit “Maniac”. I really wanted to like Jake Speed much more but, delivering only a modicum of fun, it’s simply not a patch on all those rip-roaring masterpieces that it attempts to emulate.
Jake Speed makes its debut on Blu-ray disc, having only previously been available on a budget label DVD in the UK. The 1080p transfer is in fine shape, showing no signs of damage and minimal grain. If some of the brief opening scenes in LA look slightly soft, colours become much more vibrant when the film switches location to Zimbabwe.
The soundtrack is presented in the original 2.0 stereo and shows no discernible issues, with dialogue clear throughout. Optional English subtitles have been included.
This release is slightly lacking in additional material compared to Arrow Video's usual high standards. Although Wayne Crawford sadly passed away in 2016, Ballyhoo Motion Pictures have managed to track down director Andrew Lane and producer William Fay to provide some insight into the making of the film.
Paperback Wishes, Cinematic Dreams (20:53) - a new interview with co-writer/producer/director Andrew Lane and The Hard Way Reads Better (12:00), a new interview with producer William Fay.
An Illustrated collector's booklet featuring new writing by Mark Cunliffe (first pressing only and not available for review).
There is a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork featuring an eye-catching design by Graham Humphreys.
Jake Speed swings into action on 4th June 2018 from Arrow Video.