Jumping Jack Flash has come in for some surprisingly negative opinions over the years. A lot of people consider it a black mark on Whoopi Goldberg's career. Although it does suffer from a few flaws, its quite watchable, it moves at a fair lick, and is in no way the turkey its often accused of being. Its nowhere near as bad as Theodore Rex. Now that was a turkey!
After making her debut in The Colour Purple, Jumping Jack Flash was Whoopi Goldberg's first proper starring role, and a chance to flex her muscles as an actress. And she's up to the task. Some of the plot points of JJF don't always ring true, but its a testament to Whoopi's charm and magnetism that she turns an occasionally ludicrous adventure into a fairly entertaining comedy-thriller.
Terry Dolittle (Whoopi) works a computer at a New York bank. Bored of such a hum-drum life, she finally gets a wake-up call from someone who taps into her computer. Someone called Jumping Jack Flash. Jack is in serious trouble. A British agent trapped in Russia, he needs help from Terry. The British Consulate won't acknowledge him, and he needs Terry to run errands for him. Everything from rooting out possible exit contacts on the back of frying pans to breaking into the Consulate itself and accessing their computers. All the while the situation gets more and more murkier, things go from one dangerous extreme to the next, and Terry and Jack's lives are both endangered.
Although a lot of people have an astonishing hatred of this film, I can't say the same. I think JJF is great fun, with a twisty screenplay right out of a Kafka novel. It wouldn't be half as fun without Whoopi Goldberg at the helm, but its thanks to her dynamic energy the film's momentum is kept as steady as it is.
The film pretty much rests on Whoopi's shoulders. And she does a great job. Delivering the laughs when they're needed, but also establishing a genuine fearful feeling when she gets in over her head. I especially liked the scenes of her conversing with Jack (Jonathan Pryce). There is real poignancy for Jack's situation, because it feels like Terry is the only friend he has.
There is quite an exceptional cast too. Granted they tend to get reduced to mere minutes in the spotlight, but because there is such a large gallery of famous faces, they leave a lasting impression. Look out for the late Phil Hartman, Annie Potts from Ghostbusters, James Belushi, Tracy Ullman and even Carol Kane. One thing that surprised me about JJF is there are quite a few actors from This Is Spinal Tap in the film. So keep your eyes peeled for Michael McKean, June Chadwick and Tony Hendra.
Penny Marshall made her debut as director here, and she does quite a fine job. She does sometimes overplay her hand, where the film tips over from genuine suspense to overblown farce. Such as the scenes of Whoopi Goldberg's dress caught in a paper shredder, being dragged along the streets of New York in a phone box, or wandering into Elizabeth Arden doped up on truth serum, but for the most part Marshall knows what she's doing. She's not as successful here as she was in her next film Big, her single finest hour, but JJF is still a lot of fun.
The ending has genuine nerve jangling tension and equal parts pathos. Her near death at the British Consulate is exciting, although her escape from a police car is contrived. There's no way Terry wouldn't be handcuffed, and I don't know why there wasn't a grille separating the back seats from the front. But the final shootout at the bank is good. And the scene where Terry finally meets Jack is touching too.
Jumping Jack Flash sometimes moves in fits and starts, but Penny Marshall's direction is assured at most of the right moments. Whoopi Goldberg hits a lot of the right notes, and its also a film that was ahead of its time in addressing the E-Mail system.
So give Jumping Jack Flash a chance. If not for the film, than at least for the scene where Terry goes through the song for Jack's code-key. Worth the price of admission alone!
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