When discussing the oeuvre of Whoopi Goldberg, it’s important to remember that she started off with an incredible performance in The Color Purple. While it hasn’t always been downhill from there, it took a long time for her to get on her comedic feet in the movie business. It wasn’t until Sister Act that she found the persona people wanted. Her stand-up, one-woman-show special for HBO was a knockout that showed off her acting chops and versatility while also exploring social issues.
Unfortunately, the offers she received and choices she made didn’t always live up to that promise—like Burglar, the abysmal adaptation of Lawrence Block’s beloved Bernie Rhodenbarr novel, which was really not her fault. And let’s not even mention her cop-buddy-dinosaur disaster Theodore Rex. But good movies are sometimes overlooked, like the cop flick Fatal Beauty and one of my favorite computer espionage comedies, Jumpin’ Jack Flash.
In the ‘80s, we computer nerds were starved for good stories that actually understood technology. Wargames, where Matthew Broderick hacks into a defense computer for fun and nearly starts World War III, is the gold standard—so influential that President Reagan demanded better security against hacking at NORAD. There’s love and hate for the amusing if unbelievable Electric Dreams, about a computer that falls in love with a nerd’s cello-playing neighbor. But Jumpin’ Jack Flash doesn’t get much love, and yet it was one of the more realistic computer movies of the time—if you forgive the fake screens and the fact that one of the computer terminals gets Soviet TV broadcasts from a “loose connection.”
Goldberg plays Terri Doolittle, a computer operator who monitors foreign bank transactions and chats with similar colleagues across the globe on her terminal. We see how “quirky” she is as we go through her morning routine, and her apartment is crammed to the gills with a hoarder-level collection of pop-culture memorabilia, which looks like any nerd’s crib these days but was “weird” back in 1985. She has a Mighty Mouse figure! She wears a ridiculous scarf worthy of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who! That kind of thing. It was very welcoming for nerds like me who saw it in their teens. And even more so when she started text-chatting to other computer users, just like we did on BBS groups.
This was before the World Wide Web, but not the internet. Very few people had internet access, usually government and university employees and students. When I joined Rutgers, my English professor Heywood made us all get computer accounts, even if we weren’t taking Computer Science, and that was my entry to “the net.”
There wasn’t much to do then; you could use the U of Minnesota’s “Gopher” service to download files, you could read newsgroups—the predecessor to forums like reddit—and argue over whether Gandalf could kill Superman or something on rec.arts.sf. The trolls were around back then, too. But if you knew someone’s login and the computer they were on, you could type “talk email@example.com” for example, and have a live chat session with a split window, much like chat on Facebook or SMS messages today.
And that’s very much like what Terri does, talking to her fellow bank employees across the globe, trading Mott the Hoople records (which was how we did it before eBay and Spotify), and giving advice. That’s when she gets a strange message from someone named Jack, who taunts her about “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and wants a “secret code” before he’ll continue.
Terri listens to the song over and over and scans the album cover and inserts for clues until she figures it out. She realizes she’s talking with an intelligence operative who thinks she is a contact named TERRY … and since on the internet no one knows who you are, she decides to join the excitement and help him get information at his New York apartment that will get him across the Iron Curtain and home safe. The operative is voiced by Jonathan Pryce, one of my favorite actors (he’s also in FX’s new series, Taboo).
The espionage thriller side isn’t exactly John le Carré, but it’s up there with other ‘80s films of its kind. Goldberg is quickly over her head when she goes to meet a contact by the docks in pre-Disney New York who pushes her into the skeevy Hudson when the heavies show up. Her natural sense for comedy keeps the story’s gorier parts from dragging it down, and things get eerily prescient when the police assume she is a prostitute before she’s rescued by a nerdy coworker (Stephen Collins). Her shouting match with the gruff detective over her treatment was daring for its time, and while the story is light fare, Goldberg doesn’t let the script put her in a fantasy Manhattan where her race would be overlooked in a police station, the British embassy, and an upscale spa for the one percent. It’s a delicate balancing act, and the film handles it with aplomb.
We don’t skate on the sexism either. When faceless Jack needs her to sneak into the embassy, he tells her to wear a suit. She types back, “will need an evening dress.” He wants her to call it off and says he will find another person to help. Terri reminds him that she’s got him this far and already dodged danger, but I like that they didn’t just overlook it.
Jack doesn’t know she’s black either, so she doesn’t tell him her scheme for sneaking into the cocktail party is to slap on a Tina Turner wig and a sequin dress and say she’s the entertainment. Her slapstick skills get her into the right office where she hacks into the computer and leaves a device that prints out safe exit contacts.
But she is stopped by the inside man who is working against Jack—okay, it’s Talbott, played by John Wood. Which you know immediately because it’s John Wood! He excels at playing bad guys, like the evil bishop in Ladyhawke. He was also the good guy Dr. Falken in Wargames, so this was a nice swap, where instead of the good computer scientist, he’s the evil government agent.
His thugs miss Terri’s escape, but they get her later in a hilarious set piece. She flees into a phone booth to call the police after dodging them, so they steal a tow truck, hook it to the booth, and drag her to an abandoned building through New York City traffic. Just another day in New York…
From there, the story becomes a standard thriller as they chase her back to her bank office because she can’t just go to an internet café to warn Jack. No one has internet! The final scene has lots of crazy fun and gunplay as Terri and her crazy computer-nerd coworkers—who include Jon Lovitz, Carol Kane, and Phil Hartman—clash with the spies and their thugs with Uzis. There’s a double-cross surprise, and Terri uses a most novel method of disabling her nemesis so she can warn Jack he’s headed into a trap.
It holds up surprisingly well as a period espionage comedy. Much better than, let’s say, Spies Like Us (which is almost the Theodore Rex of Chevy Chase films, but it has its moments). When she finally meets Jack, it’s a heartwarming and funny ending that predicts and outdoes You’ve Got Mail and other “meet cute by computer” rom-coms by a decade. And while they don’t have the action chemistry of the spy power couple Harry and Helen Tasker in True Lies, they would have made a cute team in a sequel. Maybe she could’ve joined the CIA as a hacker … but it was not to be.
They stopped while they were ahead, and that’s for the best. But if you want a dose of ‘80s computer nostalgia and a fun 90-minute watch, Jumpin’ Jack Flash is available to rent on Netflix.
See also: Reviewing the Queue: Following (1998)
Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and the editor of the Protectors anthologies to benefit PROTECT. He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim (not as part of a clever heist). Hailing from Nutley, New Jersey, home of criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, Thomas has so far evaded arrest. He shares his hideout with his sassy Louisiana wife and their two felines. You can find him at www.thomaspluck.com and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.