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The Nostalgic Attic: Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986)

7 February 2014

Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986)

"What, do you think there's a lot of work down on the pier for hookers? Do you think I'm giving blow jobs down there to goldfish?"

Terry Doolittle lives an unusual life for a black woman in an 80's film. She has her own apartment, she goes to her tech job in the bank everyday where she shoots the shit with her co-workers until it is time to clock out. She is smart, funny, and despite the lack of romance in her life, things seems pretty good. She is also great with computers, and in the 1986, that's the equivalent of being a wizard.

Terry (Whoopi GoldbergGhost, The Color Purple) only has one problem; she tends to chat with customers via the internet, and her boss finds this unprofessional. One evening when she is about to knock off, she gets a message from the mysterious 'Jumping Jack Flash', urgently looking for her help. 'Jack' claims to be a British spy left behind in Russia, and needs her to get in touch with the embassy on his behalf. How exactly he gets hold of her is never really explained, but as I said earlier; computers = magic. The embassy denies all knowledge of the existence of any such agent, and shrug her off. Before she knows it though, CIA and international spies are on her tail, looking to find out what she knows. In between late-night flirting sessions with 'Jack' via the computer; shoot outs, dead bodies and car chases are the new norm for Terry. The bad guys are closing in and she is running out of time and trustworthy friends, but will she be able to get 'Jack' home alive and in one piece? 

Jumpin' Jack Flash is definitely a mixed bag. It was made in probably the best decade for comedy/action/thriller hybrids; films that successfully blended humour into otherwise straight played genres, and resulted in such classics as 48 hours, Lethal Weapon and Running Scared, to name but a few. Jumpin' Jack Flash does quite a few things right, namely; the comedy is funny, and the action is well handled, for the little of it there is. So what keeps it back from 'classic' status? 

My fundamental problem with the film really extends back to the script, and it's an issue we have had for decades in films; how can you make people interacting through computers interesting? So much of the core relationship (between Terry and 'Jack') hinges on these plentiful conversations; it shows us that Terry is an essentially lonely character, and male attention is something she craves, if she cares to admit it or not. But how can you show a woman flirting with an unseen character through a computer? We never get to see 'Jack' until the final scenes. Instead, the filmmakers opt to have Terry talk out loud for her part as she types, and we then eventually start to get a 'voice over' for 'Jack's replies as the film progresses. Sounds awkward, doesn't it? Poor Whoopi spends huge amounts of time talking out loud to herself in the film, and it eventually starts to just seem very strange and unfunny. These moments between Terry and 'Jack' definitely aren't intended to be humorous, so I just wish there was a better way of presenting this information to the audience. Did we need to see all of these conversations? Not really. I would have preferred if the majority of them had been dropped and they somehow brought the 'Jack' character into the film earlier than the final scene. Even as it plays out, the romantic possibilities doesn't feel 'real' anyway for me. Adding to this is the fact that even when not talking with 'Jack' via internet, Terry still talks out loud in nearly every scene that she is alone, and it became too much for me to take. Unsurprisingly, there was apparently plenty of problems during the shoot, and many re-writes were made.

Luckily enough, this isn't a deal breaker on the film. Whoopi is genuinely funny when the material works, and a lot of it does. The funniest moments are definitely the more 'R' rated dialogue scenes when she lets rip, and they take you by surprise as much of the rest of the comedy seems very 'PG'. It is a good juxtaposition, but I nearly wish they pushed the more aggressive comedy to the forefront (why not? It's an 'R' film anyway). There are moments of broader comedy that actually work, like when Terry gets dressed up to sneak into the embassy, or when she gets trapped in the phone booth during the car chase. Other scenes over stay their welcome, such as the lengthy 'truth serrum' performance. Action-wise, it is relatively light, but there are plenty of shoot outs and car chases that regularly pop up to keep you awake. Thankfully the film doesn't fall too deeply into the 'nobody believes me!' cliche-trap, and for the most part every scene pushes the film along. If only we could trim out about ten minutes of the scenes I mentioned above...

Whoopi is surrounded by some recognisable comedy faces throughout the film. Her office co-workers include; Carol Cane (The Princess Bride, Scrooged), Jon Lovitz (Big, My Stepmother is an Alien) and the sadly deceased Phil Hartman (Last Resort, Blind Date). Annie Potts (Ghostbusters, Who is Harry Crumb?) plays the wife of a deceased agent who tries to help Terry, and James Belushi (Red Heat, About Last Night...) has a rare chance at playing the bad guy. Not that he is particularly evil, but hey, it's a change. And in case you were wondering, 'Jack' is played by Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Haunted Honeymoon). The film is directed by Penny Marshall, who had a good reputation for comedy at the time. She was just off the back of Big, when the original director was removed from Jumpin' Jack Flash. As I mentioned, she does well with the comedy scenes, but the mix with romantic drama and action could have been worked out better.

As mentioned in the opening of this review, it is unusual to see a smart, positive, educated, black leading lady in a comedy for the time period. Seeing as the film was initially pegged for Shelley Long, I'm not sure how much of that is intentional. Still, it feels fresh and different, even watching it now. Whoopi made an unusual leading lady anyway (her fashion and looks were generally downplayed) but she had plenty of charisma and dramatic hooks to get her through more than she was ever given, really. If you are looking for something light to pass an evening, you can do plenty worse than Jumpin' Jack Flash. It's no classic, but it still has a good sense of fun about it. 

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At 7 February 2014 at 13:31 , Blogger Wes M said...

Good selection JP, I'm not a big comedy guy but this is a fun breezy film and one of Whoopi Goldberg's most enjoyable films - I think it's fair to say that Goldberg doesn't have a classic film to her name (the closest would be The Player I think). Not a great film by any stretch, it's way too corny, but she was great in Ghost, and acted her two leads off the screen, the film comes unstuck whenever she's offscreen... The computers = magic remark made me smile, I was one of those guys who thought I could hack into the corridors of power with a Commodore 64, such was the techno-buzz after seeing War Games, Electric Dreams and Weird Science !

At 8 February 2014 at 03:10 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

I tend to do 50/50 with comedy and other genre fare here, so you will get a good mix of nonsense on this page! Fully agreed that she never really got to shine on her own, though The Color Purple is held in fairly high regard (not my kind of film at all) and my wife and plenty of females go absolutely nuts over Sister Act. But yup, no real 'classics', which is a pity, as she has plenty of charisma and could have easily done greater things.

The computers stuff always crack me up, I love it when characters ask the computers questions and get really good answers... I was a Spectrum kid so I have fond memories of typing commands into screens and getting nothing but garbage back! technology is still oversold anyway, not much has changed, though we are starting to live in a world that little bit closer to sci-fi 'future'!

At 8 February 2014 at 13:57 , Blogger Mike T said...

This one is a family favourite with my people. My mother has passed it on to my tween niece so it tends to get played a lot at Christmas and the like. It's not hard to see why, it's damn funny!

My problem with is the slow points and I think you're absolutely right to point the finger at the handing of the Whoopiie/Jack relationship for a lot of that. As @WesM pointed out, the techno-buzz is delivered so much better in WarGames. Joshua is a much more engaging off-screen cyber character than Jack... "Do you want to play a game?" Where as Jack just came across as a whiney die-embodied voice. who cuts in periodically to suck the comedy and pace out of the room.

I'll probably watch it again next Christmas regardless.

At 9 February 2014 at 08:35 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Agreed fully on the techno buzz, it falls decidedly flat here. And Christmas is probably the best time to watch a bit of Whoopi!

At 10 June 2014 at 04:06 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

It's worth a watch but just isn't anywhere near one of the decade's classics. If you thought Whoopi alone was a problem here - did you ever see 1988's The Telephone? Mainly all Whoopi all the time, and even more behind the scenes problems and strife.

At 11 June 2014 at 02:19 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

I haven't seen that one Craig, though now you have me intrigued. Will definitely check it out.

At 11 June 2014 at 04:02 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

And I forgot to mention - I love Jonathan Pryce most of the time, but my lord he's miscast here. Can you imagine if they'd lucked onto Timothy Dalton a year before he got Bonded? Of course he'd still only be coming in at the end but it would have been cool.


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