Times Staff Writer

There’s a certain perversity in “Jake Speed’s” title, because swiftness is the one ingredient most lacking in this lighthearted adventure.

It has a lively start and finish, but the middle could use less talk and more action--which is not to say it couldn’t do with a much lower body count as well. Indeed, were it not for a big dollop of gratuitous violence, it would be more diverting and better crafted than most of the stuff filling up the screen in anticipation of the rest of the summer blockbusters.

“Jake Speed” (citywide) opens with what looks to be a terrorist nightmare come true. We watch helplessly as two thugs zero in on a young American blonde partying in Paris. Meanwhile, back home in Los Angeles her family is conferring with authorities when her bathrobed grandfather (Leon Ames) wanders in to announce emphatically that Jake Speed is the one person able to get his kidnaped granddaughter back.


But Grandpa, isn’t Jake Speed a fictional character, like Superman or Travis McGee? Hang on, the missing blonde’s serious-minded sister Margaret (Karen Kopins) is summoned to meet Jake (Wayne Crawford) and his bespectacled sidekick Des (Dennis Christopher) in a San Pedro dive. It seems these guys, whatever their real names, have to live an adventure before they can write about it. In any event, they sweep Margaret off to an unstable African nation, where the fellows insist that her sister’s being held by white slavers. (Only a spoilsport would ask how they could know.)

Registered in one of the most deliciously sleazy-picturesque hotels ever seen on the screen, the lean and tan Jake stretches out on an old brass bed and invites Margaret in. “This is so obvious,” she remarks dryly, insisting that he take the couch. Thus begins prolonged banter that gives us, just when we were set for the fun to start in earnest, all too much time to consider how derivative “Jake Speed” is of “Romancing the Stone” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The film has a blithe, tongue-in-cheek spirit appropriate to yet another homage to those old comic-book and Saturday-matinee serial heroes. Yet if “Jake Speed” meant to be true to its sources, it could sure have done with more cliffhanging and lots less gore and piling up of corpses. An African nation in the throes of a bloody revolution is probably too serious to use merely as a background for pulp heroics. Also, Andrew Lane, in his feature directorial debut, may have been inhibited by the fact that Crawford helped him write and produce the picture. (As producers, the pair were responsible for those winners, “Night of the Comet” and “Valley Girl,” and the current, disappointing “Getting Even.”)

Just when we’re beginning to drift seriously, John Hurt at long last appears to snap us back to attention. A gleeful villain of the kind favored in James Bond pictures, Hurt is the head of that slave ring, an Englishman with a low-class accent but with the kind of tailoring and hair style that gives him an uncanny resemblance to best-selling author James Clavell. Would that Hurt had popped up about a reel earlier.

On the plus side are the film’s substantial production values. Designer Norm Baron has given it a great adventure-story look, and Mark Snow’s disco score supplies a bounce otherwise lacking. Crawford and Christopher are easy to take--a good thing, since they’ll doubtlessly be returning if “Jake Speed” does at all well. Karen Kopins radiates wit and elegance as she tackles the familiar role of the lovely lady in need of unstarching. Allan Shearman, Bullshot Crummond himself, is also on hand for some fun. If only “Jake Speed” (rated PG for so much bloodshed) lived up to its title.