Mother, Jugs & Speed
A peculiarly off-the-mark attempt at doing for ambulance drivers what M*A*S*H did for army doctors, Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976) veers roughly from broad physical comedy to dark gallows humor under the straightforward direction of Peter Yates, who must've been hired on the sole basis of his cinematic vehicular expertise. So long as the ambulances are speeding through the seedy Los Angeles streets, the film comes close to achieving the jocular, ragtag charm of its obvious inspiration thanks to the lively interplay between its capable cast. Bill Cosby dominates the film as Mother, a jaded, heavy-drinking veteran of the profession who enjoys terrorizing nuns on his downtime. It's surprising to see the avowedly non-vulgar comedian cursing and cavorting with prostitutes, but he so gleefully dives into the role that the sight of Cliff Huxtable getting a vibrator poked into his ear doesn't seem at all jarring. As Jugs, Raquel Welch is her usual glamorous self, but she transcends the one-dimensional connotation of the character's name once she ankles the secretary's desk to become an EMT. Harvey Keitel rounds out the titular trio as Speed, a disgraced former police detective who's been suspended for allegedly moonlighting as a drug dealer. Oddly, the three don't team up until late in the movie, which, up until then, is mostly just a collection of sometimes funny, sometimes tragic episodes that find the various EMT teams encountering the obligatory rogues' gallery of clientele. At best, Yates's unsure staging makes for some strangely affecting sequences most notably, Mother contending with a dead junkie's weeping girlfriend as Peter Frampton's "Show Me the Way" blares from a stereo. That the situation is wrapped up so cynically suggests that writer Tom Mankiewicz (son of the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz) might be up to the inherent bleakness of the world he's depicting. But Yates immediately murders this potential with his clumsy, sub-Hal Roach staging of a fat woman careening down a city street on a runaway gurney. From there, any attempts at pathos come off as crude. The solid supporting cast, including the likes of Bruce Davison, L.Q. Jones, Larry Hagman, and Dick Butkus, is mostly wasted, save for the ever-cantankerous Allen Garfield, who's fun as the cheap owner of the ambulance company. Had the film evinced the courage of its darker convictions, and been directed by someone who knew how to competently vary tones, this could've been a nasty little gem of a comedy. But it ends up going for broad comedy, concluding with a horribly forced siege finale that's uneasily spiked with some realistically staged violence. This should've been much better. Hopelessly nostalgic Gen X-ers are advised to be on the lookout for Cosby referring to himself as the "Brown Hornet." Fox presents Mother, Jugs & Speed in a decent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with solid Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Extras include a whole host of theatrical trailers for this and other Raquel Welch movies, and a television spot. Keep-case.