Mother, Jugs & Speed Review

In Los Angeles, the first ambulance to arrive at the scene of an accident is the one who gets the patient – and the fee, $42.50 plus 50 cents a mile. “Mother” (Bill Cosby) is the star driver of the F&B Ambulance Company, one of several rival companies. Jennifer, nicknamed “Jugs” for some inexplicable reason (Raquel Welch), is the secretary at the depot who has ambitions that go beyond her desk job. And the latest employee is a suspended cop (Harvey Keitel), and they don’t call him “Speed” for nothing…

M*A*S*H on wheels” must have been the way they pitched this black comedy to 20th Century Fox. Mother, Jugs & Speed did quite well at the box office but in the quarter-century since has slipped into a strange half-life, not obscure by any means but nowhere near classic status either. It does have something of a cult following though, Quentin Tarantino among them, for its assured mix of broad laughs followed by scenes that are intentionally not funny at all. It’s the sort of film you tend to discover by catching it unawares on TV and finding out it’s a lot better than you might have thought. No-one would call Peter Yates a great director – his output is too uneven for that – but ever now and then he would make a good film. He was on form in the 70s, having made The Hot Rock and The Friends of Eddie Coyle earlier in the decade. Three years and two films after this one, he’d go on to make Breaking Away. It’s probably fair to say that he was, and is, only as good as his source material. Given such material as Steve Tesich’s Oscar-winning script for Breaking Away, he’d produce a little classic. Mother, Jugs & Speed isn’t quite on that level, but it’s a credit to Yates and co-producer/screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz that the film works as well as it does. Tone is hard to judge in black comedies, and tastelessness is the biggest risk. This film manages to avoid that, despite stretching its MPAA PG rating to its limits. (I doubt it would get less than a PG-13 nowadays – it was a AA, later 15, in the UK – but even so the lack of strong language or any graphic content is surprising in a fairly edgy film like this.) Only the disco music on the soundtrack, and a higher level of political incorrectness than would be usual today, really dates the film.

Of course a strong cast helps enormously. Bill Cosby found his niche on TV, but watching him here makes you wish more directors had made such good use of him on the big screen. Raquel Welch was well into her thirties and past her sex-symbol days, but she looks terrific. By this time her acting ability wasn’t in doubt but just in case anyone did doubt she shows a gift for comic timing that was only hinted at in her early bikini roles. Harvey Keitel shows a lighter side of his personality than he usually does. Keitel would hardly be anyone’s first idea as a romantic leading man – latterly, only Jane Campion has really exploited that in him – but pairing him with Welch works. The supporting cast is top notch. Allen Garfield was always good at playing sleazy types, and he makes a strong impression as the boss. Larry Hagman, two years before Dallas, is good as a more and more unhinged paramedic. Toni Basil, one of those interesting minor figures who pops up from time to time (dancer and choreographer, occasional actress and hit single maker in 1982 with “Mickey”) turns up in a one-scene role that’s the most genuinely alarming in the entire film. It’s a pity that Bruce Davison, a solid supporting actor who was to earn an Oscar nomination for Longtime Companion, doesn’t get a chance to make much of an impression here.

This Region 1 DVD is available either singly or as part of a box set with Bandolero!, Fathom, Myra Breckinridge and One Million Years B.C.. Mother, Jugs & Speed has an anamorphic transfer in the ratio of 2.35:1. Comedies are traditionally brightly lit, but DP Ralph Woolsey lights this film dark, with plenty of nighttime scenes. That means there’s a lot of black on the screen at times. Grain isn’t always avoided, but that’s most likely a necessary consequence of fast film stock, anamorphic lenses and low lighting levels. Shadow detail is generally fine and colours are vibrant.

The film was in mono on its original release, as was virtually everything else in 1976. As with Fox’s Fathom DVD, you get two English-language sound mixes, both two-channel, one mono and one stereo (though if it’s surround, I failed to detect it). There’s some separation between left and right in music and some sound effects, but overall this extra sound mix seems a pointless waste of disc space. There's nothing at all wrong with the mono track. French and Spanish mono dubbed versions are included, though as with Fathom there aren’t French subtitles for some reason. There are thirty-two chapter stops, which is plenty for a film with a two-digit running time.

This is basically a back-catalogue disc, so the only extras are trailers. A commentary by the director and/or one or more of the stars might have been a good inclusion. Anyway, there are four trailers for Mother, Jugs & Speed itself: a teaser trailer (running 1:36), the not-much-longer theatrical trailer (1:50), a Spanish-language trailer for Manicomio sobre ruedas (1:53) which subtitles the dialogue and has a Spanish voiceover, and a TV spot (0:32). All are in anamorphic 16:9, even oddly enough the TV spot, and are in less than ideal condition.

Also on the DVD are the “Raquel Welch Theater” trailers, for the other films in the box set plus one other. These are: Bandolero! (anamorphic 16:9, 2:51), Fantastic Voyage (full-frame, 3:20), Fathom (non-anamorphic 1.66:1, 2:24), Myra Breckinridge (anamorphic 2.35:1, 1:00) and One Million Years B.C. (anamorphic 1.85:1, 3:07).

Every movie fan has their discoveries, unheralded films which turn out to be much better than you might expect. For many people, Mother, Jugs & Speed may be one such. Fox have presented it on a good DVD that’s light on extras but on the other hand inexpensive.

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Last updated: 24/06/2018 00:18:34

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