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Should I Watch..? 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' (1986)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

Jumpin' Jack Flash is a spy comedy film released in 1986, and it was directed by Penny Marshall for her feature film debut. Named after the Rolling Stones song of the same name (which appears on the soundtrack), the film sees a likeable bank worker unwittingly involved in an attempt by a British spy to escape from behind the Iron Curtain. The film stars Whoopi Goldberg, John Wood and Stephen Collins, and it also featured a number of Saturday Night Live stars in cameos such as Jon Lovitz, Jim Belushi, Phil Hartman and Tracey Ullman. The film was originally conceived as a vehicle for Cheers star Shelly Long before Goldberg got the role, her first comedic part on the big screen. Reviews were not kind to the film, although Goldberg's performance was hailed. The film would go on to earn just shy of $30 million in the US but both Goldberg and Marshall would go on to bigger and better things.

Forgettable

What's It About?

Terry Doolittle works at an international bank in New York, spending her days working at her computer with her colleagues before heading back to her untidy apartment. Her unconventional manner may rub her boss up the wrong way but she's professional at her job and well liked by her co-workers. After saying goodbye to a co-worker leaving on maternity, Terry notices a message appear on her computer: "Knock Knock". Replying to the message, Terry is shocked to find herself chatting to someone calling themselves Jumping Jack Flash who claims to be a British spy being pursued by the KGB.

In order to prove he can trust her, Jack asks Terry for a password which she eventually stumbles upon. Jack asks her to send a coded message to the British Consulate to help make arrangements for him to safely return from the other side of the Iron Curtain. But Terry hits a wall after meeting Jeremy Talbot who claims that the so-called Department C Jack mentions doesn't exist. Before long, both Terry and Jack find themselves deep in trouble and Terry, still largely ignorant of what exactly is going on, is hopelessly out of her depth against a variety of KGB agents.

Trailer

What's to Like?

These days, and possibly even at the time, there isn't much to recommend about this film which is actually a fairly cliched spy caper heavily based amid Cold War tensions that were rapidly falling apart at the time. Thankfully, Jumpin' Jack Flash does have one thing in its favour and that is its lead star. Whoopi Goldberg ditches the harrowing drama that accompanied her debut in The Color Purple and is on more comfortable ground here, unleashing her comic powers to full effect in a film that doesn't give her enough material. She almost literally bounces across the screen, full of energy and chaos, dropping insults and cuss words like her career depended on it. Even a somewhat tone-deaf sequence featuring Whoopi impersonating Tina Turner to sneak into a posh party can't take the shine off of her. She is, in a word, excellent.

Aside from Whoopi working her socks off, the film feels like your standard spy caper from the time. There are good and bad guys in disguise as otherwise forgettable side characters, surreptitious murders in darkened parts of town and a host of incompetent goons trying to off our hapless heroine. It's not exactly the most original movie of this type but in a way, that doesn't matter so much because the film is a comedy first and foremost. If Whoopi had a co-star she could play off then this would have been a vast improvement to the film because she feels all alone, struggling desperately to make the film work. Sadly, she can't do it but you certainly can't fault her for trying.

Goldberg's charisma makes her a memorable character but sadly doesn't get much in the way of decent comedy.

Goldberg's charisma makes her a memorable character but sadly doesn't get much in the way of decent comedy.

Fun Facts

  • Strangely, the film was actually ahead of its time depicting chats on computers which wouldn't become commonplace for at least another ten years with instant messaging services like ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger becoming popular in the late Nineties.
  • The film was originally due to be directed by Howard Zieff who had previously directed Private Benjamin. Jon Lovitz auditioned for a part but Zieff turned him down - after Zieff was replaced by Marshall, Lovitz was then cast as one of Terry's co-workers.
  • Marshall, who was previously most famous for playing Laverne DeFazio in the sitcom Happy Days, only directed a total of seven films but still produced some of the most successful films of the time. Her next feature, Big, turned Tom Hanks into a legitimate A-list star while A League Of Their Own became a smash hit that was eventually selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry. Serving as a producer for boxing biopic Cinderella Man, she was reunited with her Happy Days co-star, director Ron Howard.
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What's Not to Like?

The problem with Jumpin' Jack Flash is that apart from its central star, the film doesn't offer anything we haven't already seen before. The film makes little effort to disguise its villains (the British accent tends to give it away) while the various goons, led by Belushi in a cheap suit, resort to the usual sort of torture hints (drills and power tools, that sort of thing) that we've grown accustomed to. Even the soundtrack feels derivative as Fontella Bass' anthem 'Rescue Me' blares out during the phonebox sequence. It seems like the film is unimaginative and relying on the sort of spy cliches that even James Bond had long abandoned. It doesn't help that the story meanders quite a bit and newbie director Marshall struggles to assert any sort of control over proceedings. It's too weak to be effective as either a comedy or a spy thriller.

It's a real shame that the film can't keep up with Whoopi who puts in so much more than anyone else. Watching the film today makes it feel even more out-of-date with a number of cast members casting long shadows indeed - Collins' sexual misconduct admission makes his appearance feel awkward while the spectre of Phil Hartman's murder haunts his casting as well. The film just underwhelms in every other department besides the casting of Whoopi and I wanted it to step up and help her out. She was still finding her feet as a film star at this point and while she does everything she can, the film doesn't seem inclined to help her out much.

The film's most memorable scene involves a phonebox with Goldberg inside being towed away in downtown New York. Strangely, nobody notices...

The film's most memorable scene involves a phonebox with Goldberg inside being towed away in downtown New York. Strangely, nobody notices...

Should I Watch It?

Whoopi has enjoyed far more success as a dramatic actress than a comedic one and sadly, this film doesn't do much to rectify the situation. Having said that, this is much more enjoyable than many other films she starred in but it is neither a riotous comedy or a gripping spy thriller. It wastes the performance Whoopi gives to instead settle for being a very forgettable and extremely dated mishmash of ideas and genres. It's not terrible but alas, that's possibly the best thing you can say about it.

Great For: demonstrating Whoopi's comic potential, showing Millennials what life used to look like in the Eighties, anyone who still misses the Cold War

Not So Great For: modern audiences, anyone who hates the Rolling Stones, giant toothbrush sales

What Else Should I Watch?

Whoopi Goldberg's comic film career didn't get much better after Jumpin' Jack Flash with utterly witless films like Fatal Beauty, The Telephone and Homer And Eddie barely making much of an impact at all. Remarkably, she would go on to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her riotous comic performance of accidental medium Oda Mae Brown in the otherwise tragic Ghost alongside parted lovers Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze. Sadly, this success wasn't that sustained and after a star turn in Sister Act, Whoopi would drift more into voice acting and occasional cameos as well as more unfunny, uninspired comedies. Personally, she'll always be Guinan to me - the mystical bartender from Star Trek: The Next Generation who thankfully appeared in the Trek films Generations and Nemesis.

Spy films have long been parodied in cinema, especially in the wake of the success of a certain James Bond in Dr No. Probably the biggest of these was Mike Myers' silly Sixties throwback Austin Powers who featured in three films between 1997-2002. But there are countless examples you may enjoy such as Joel & Ethan Coen's black comedy Burn After Reading, action comedy revival Get Smart, family friendly Spy Kids or James Cameron's overlooked and explosive action film True Lies. Even Bond films weren't afraid to take a more light-hearted look at spying as most of Roger Moore's tenure bordered on being comedies. But personally, I enjoy the more serious side of 007 instead of fluff like Moonraker or Octopussy.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Whoopi Goldberg

Terry Doolittle

Stephen Collins

Marty Phillips

John Wood

Jeremy Talbot

Carol Kane

Cynthia

Annie Potts

Liz Carlson

Roscoe Lee Browne

Archer Lincoln

Sara Botsford

Lady Sarah Billings

Jeroen Krabbe

Mark Van Meter

Technical Info

*credited as J.W. Melville
**credited as Patricia Irving

DirectorPenny Marshall

Screenplay

David H. Franzoni, Charles Shyer*, Nancy Meyers** and Christopher Thompson

Running Time

105 minutes

Release Date (UK)

1st May, 1987

Rating

15

Genre

Comedy, Romance, Thriller

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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