20th Century Fox
Directed by Peter Yates
Written by Tom Mankiewicz and Stephen Manes
Produced by Joseph R. Barbera
One of the reasons I love cable/satellite stations like Fox Movie Channel and Turner Classic Movies among others is that they show movies I haven’t seen for 10 or 20 years and have usually forgotten (even though The Wife makes a nice little bundle on the side betting people that there hasn’t been a movie I’ve seen that I’ve forgotten) or ignored for one reason or another but I rediscover them and find new things to delight and entertain me. MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED is one of those lost favorites of mine.
I remember seeing this movie during its original theatrical run in Downtown Brooklyn’s late, lamented Metropolitan Theatre on Fulton Street but now that I’m older and appreciate the talent that made the movie, I watch it with a whole new perspective and just have a good time while doing so.
I mean, just look at the cast…do you think that today you could get Bill Cosby and Harvey Keitel in the same movie? L.Q. Jones, Severn Darden and Bill Henderson are highly respected and dependable character actors who have appeared in literally hundreds of movies. You may not recognize the names, but I’m willing to bet you next month’s rent that when you see their faces you’ll cry out; “Oh, sure! I know those guys!” Bruce Davison starred in what is maybe the greatest made for TV science fiction movie ever made. And take a look at the name of the producer. Yes, he’s that Joseph Barbera who along with his partner, William Hanna has given us classic cartoons like The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Jonny Quest, etc. One of the writers of this movie is Tom Mankiewicz who comes from a family whose name is a legend in Hollywood and he wrote my favorite Sean Connery James Bond movie, “Diamonds Are Forever” And do I really need to go into the success enjoyed by Raquel Welch, Valarie Curtin, Larry Hagman and the director Peter Yates?
So we’re clear on one thing, right? There’s an amazing amount of outstanding talent both in front of and behind the camera here. But exactly what is MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED about and is it worth you taking time to watch it?
The F&B Ambulance Service is engaged in a war with their rivals at the Unity Ambulance Company. They’re in heavy competition to be given a highly lucrative city contract to be the exclusive ambulance providers to a section of Los Angeles and in order to be the winners, the F&B Ambulance Service is willing to do just about anything including letting the air out of their rivals tires, bribing the local cops and giving kickbacks to patients and providing them with a shyster lawyer who helps them get out-of-court settlements on trumped-up lawsuits.
The F&B is home to a motley crew who unlike their rivals at Unity actually seem to prefer to win the contract by any dirty trick necessary. As my grandfather would put it, they’d rather steal a quarter than work for an honest dollar. There’s the boss, Harry Fishbein (Allan Garfield) who has not yet found the bottom to his depths of underhandedness. His crooked lawyer, Whiplash Moran (Severn Darden) is as twisted as a spiral staircase after an earthquake. There’s the sex-crazed Murdoch (played with brilliant sleaze by Larry Hagman) who runs a betting pool based on how many dead bodies his rig can bring in on a shift. Jugs (Raquel Welch) is the Amazonian switchboard operator who blackmails Fishbein into giving her a job as an ambulance driver.
Tony Malatesta (Harvey Keitel) is a cop who’s on suspension due to his being accused of selling heroin to junior high schools kids (hence his nickname, ‘Speed’) and he comes to work at F&B. He’s partnered with the baddest and coolest ambulance driver around, Mother (Bill Cosby), whose souped-up rig is tricked out with a high-powered custom stereo system, a loaded .357 Magnum holstered under the dash and a cooler full of beer and champagne. Mother lives up to his nickname as he looks out after everybody at F&B and quiet as it’s kept, he only lets Fishbein think he’s in charge while Mother is the one who really runs the show.
MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED really doesn’t have any kind of plot to speak of. Mainly it presents us with these colorful characters and a whole lot more besides and let us see how they interact with each other and the citizens of L.A. as they go about their job in a series of sometimes funny, sometimes sad and even violently grim events that come with the package. As Mother says to Jugs after a heartbreaking death in the back of his rig; “You run around yelling about your rights and responsibilities…well, this is it, sweetheart and this is as good as it gets.” The conflict with the Unity guys weaves in and out of the various character bits and vignettes, some of which are hilarious such as the one where Murdoch and his partner have to bring a tremendously fat woman from the top floor of a four-story walkup down to the ground floor. And there’s a growing romance between Speed and Jugs that has some really good chemistry between Welch and Keitel that makes it believable. There are a couple of deaths in the movie that are actually shocking and the movie has enough respect for the material to take the time to show how the characters react to the deaths. And this may be the only movie where you get to see Bill Cosby beat the everlovin’ shit outta Larry Hagman.
So is the movie worth your time watching it? Hell, yeah. You get to see a whole bunch of talented people at work at a time before they really hit it big and you get to see them in their prime. Harvey Keitel especially looks baby faced and it’s kinda scary when you see flashes of the intensity that marks his performances in later years. The movie diddy bops along at breezy 90 minutes that shifts gears in an eye blink from raucous comedy to poignant drama. There’s a great ‘70’s soundtrack that includes songs by Peter Frampton and The Brothers Johnson. And I defy anybody not to be hooked by the title sequence that has Bill Cosby wildass driving his rig through nighttime L.A. streets to Paul Jabara’s ‘Dance’. It’s an entertaining movie that I recommend highly. In fact, it would make a good Saturday night double feature with Martin Scorsese’s “Bringing Out The Dead” since they both share certain themes.
MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED is rated PG-13 for mature language and themes and there’s one scene that has Mother in a whorehouse where it’s pretty clear that he trades drugs for sexual favors and I applaud Bill Cosby for wanting to stretch his acting chops and show a darker side to his character. But if you really want to see him play a dark character, rent the detective thriller he did with his good buddy Robert Culp, “Hickey and Boggs” because is that one underrated modern detective/noir thriller with balls. I understand that some people who know him only from his Jell-O commercials or his rightfully classic NBC TV show might be upset at seeing him in such a scene so don’t say I didn’t warn you, okay?