The 1980s were all about the impossibly muscular multiple gun wielding heroes who would swoop in to save the day amid big explosions. It was a formula that worked (and still does to this very day). The movies were so ridiculously over the top, they were ripe for spoofing. Years before Arnold Schwarzenegger would attempt to lampoon the genre in The Last Action Hero, 1986’s Jake Speed took a stab – or more accurately a wild swing and miss – at it.
The opening of the movie foreshadows what audiences are about to get. A lone ship sails across turbulent seas on a stormy night. The camera pans into the cargo hold. Eventually, the shot focuses on one crate which has “Jake” stamped across it. Suddenly, lightning crashes through a window and spells “Speed” across the bottom. It is an awesomely cheesy moment that promises fun.
Unfortunately, Jake Speed is all downhill from there. The ridiculous opening seems to be the only time the movie is self aware. There is never another point where it is willing to laugh at itself. It is hard to tell if this is even an attempt to make fun of the genre. The story focuses on Margaret Winston. Desperate to find her kidnapped sister, Margaret enlists the services of a man claiming to be Jake Speed, the real life incarnation of a fictional action hero.
The film never follows the obvious plot. Have the big bad action hero spout off silly one liners while crushing anyone that gets in his way. This should be nothing more than a series of exaggerated moments This happens occasionally, such as Jake taking down a giant brick wall with just a shotgun. The problem is these scenes never work since the script takes itself so seriously. Instead of poking fun at action movies it comes off as a cheap knockoff.
This is partially due to the poor casting. Wayne Crawford is completely miscast as the titular hero. He simply does not look the part. When Margaret first meets Jake, it is in a seedy bar. He looks no different than the other dregs of society that bother the women in the bar. Even more silly is when the bar’s goons are scared off as Jake simply walks up to the table. The scene is not meant to be serious, but still comes across as laughable.
Aside from some big explosions, Jake Speed lacks the bombastic flair associated with action films. It would be easy to dismiss to budgetary constraints if passages from the books were not read throughout the movie. Margaret’s grandfather building up Speed before he is introduced compounds the problem. This leaves the audience with some disappointing action scenes. (The horrible special effects do not help.)
The most surprising part about Jake Speed is it actually has an interesting premise. Margaret almost immediately believes Speed is real despite there being no evidence. This can be explained away by how much she wants to find her sister. The movie also does a great job of building the mystery. The audience will keep watching wondering if it really is Jake Speed. If not, there is still the question of what the ruse is all about.
There is still some interest even after the big reveal. Instead of a fictional series of books, the stories are the biography of Speed. There were plenty of action movies at the time that had worse plots. Jake Speed is able to keep interest from when the mystery is introduced to even after all questions have been answered. It begs the question as to what happened to the rest of the movie.
There is simply too much going on in Jake Speed. This can be said about many action movies of the 80s. The difference is those films stay consistent. There is no confusing Lethal Weapon with Rambo. Jake Speed wants to have a laugh at the genre while also striving to be a part of it. In the end, it is a movie with a lot of flowing ideas flowing never connect.