You may have noticed that I’ve talked about MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED a lot. I wrote about it only once, for my friend’s spotlight on Underrated Comedies. As I wrote then, this isn’t only an underrated comedy in my eyes. In my opinion, this may just be the most underrated American film of all time. Am I exaggerating? Read on, amigos.
MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED was written by Tom Mankiewicz, who worked on SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, DRAGNET, and three James Bond movies. It was directed by Peter Yates, best known for classic tough-guy movies such as BULLITT and THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. One of the producers on MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED is Joseph Barbera — that’s right — one half of the insanely prolific Hanna-Barbera cartoon team.
All of the above credits may begin to hint at the unique atmosphere of MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED — I could call it “cartoonish realism” if I thought the term might ever take off. The story concerns an independent ambulance company competing against rival services in addition to the proper channels. They’re barely-legal L.A. outlaws, riding into life or death situations. Most of them do it for the kicks.
The veteran driver is nicknamed “Mother” and that’s the only name he’s known by. He’s a man of simple pleasures: He likes getting massages from pretty ladies, keeping a fully-stocked cooler in the rig, and “buzzing” gaggles of nuns with his siren as they’re crossing the street.
That’s Bill Cosby.
The new guy is Tony Malatesta, a former police detective nicknamed “Speed” due to the bogus drug allegations that recently got him shitcanned from the LAPD.
That’s Harvey Keitel.
And the knockout receptionist with larger ambitions is nicknamed “Jugs” (which she hates, by the way.)
That’s Raquel Welch.
Those are three very different stars, which means that the movie is a collection of very different tones. This movie brims with raucous comedy and sober tragedy, on a scene-to-scene basis. Somehow it all hangs together cohesively – credit to the sure hand of Peter Yates. But even with that said, it’s probably still not what you’re expecting. Cosby’s got a potty-mouth, for one thing! Your Cosby Show memories will be forever changed once you hear him say “Bambi’s mom had great tits.” But even as he’s doing that, he’s rocking some real pathos too. His performance here is way more HICKEY & BOGGS (see that too, please) than GHOST DAD or LEONARD PART SIX. There’s a real depth to his acting that could be frankly shocking even to longtime fans of his comedy.
Meanwhile, Keitel was best known at the time for his work with Scorsese – he appeared in TAXI DRIVER the same year – but even though he’s cast as the straight man here, he’s totally down to play. And Raquel Welch, a sexual revolution in human form, is easily their equal and frequently their better. It’s one of her best-ever roles.
Add to that a supporting cast that includes L.Q. Jones, Bruce Davison, Dick Butkus, Larry Hagman in brilliantly gross & bastardy form, and the sorely-underappreciated character-actor great Allen Garfield (THE STUNT MAN) as the low-rent boss of the gang, and you have one of the most fun movies of the 1970s, and arguably one of the most unheralded. Name another great movie from that year – ROCKY, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, NETWORK – and then ask me if I’d rather watch MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED. Apologies to Stallone, Hoffman, Redford, and Duvall, but I think you already know my answer.
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And check out this fun photo-article on the film’s shooting locations.