For some reason or another, it’s hard to get a western comedy just right. Blazing Saddles is one of few examples of the effectively hilarious western, but others are harder to spot. Take 1994’s Lightning Jack, for instance. This picture comes directed by Simon Wincer and is very much a Paul Hogan vehicle, with the Australian playing the titular road and responsible for the screenplay.
Wincer, who also directed Free Willy and the Australian western Quigley Down Under, is no stranger to delivering safe vanilla fare. And that is exactly what Lightning Jack is, complete with a buoyant Bruce Rowland score and irregular adventures that seem more like the stuff of cartoons than the tenacious soot of the Wild West.
Hogan is Lightning Jack Kane, an Australian outlaw roaming the American west with a band of thieves. One day, a bank robbery goes wrong and he escapes with his life. He has the newspaper read to him and discovers that he’s not quite the legend he thinks of himself as, so he goes on a quest to earn more recognition. This leads to another robbery.
And the robbery leads to Lightning Jack meeting the mute Ben Doyle (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). The two form a fast friendship after Doyle saves Jack’s life a number of times. The outlaw takes it upon himself to teach the young man the ways of the world, with hopes of finally making the papers as the outlaw he believes he is.
There isn’t a central storyline in Lightning Jack and everything runs in service of trying to turn the title character into a formidable bandit. This leads to a series of naïve setups and rib-tickling routines, some of which are more effective than others. The entire process is so ruthlessly gregarious that it’s hard to fault Hogan and Co., but it isn’t a good movie either.
Most of the picture is focused on Lightning Jack and Ben Doyle. They are the constants and David Eggby’s lens spends a lot of time watching them do stuff. Wincer follows the male bonding process as the two protagonists trot through the desert, but he also expands their relationship to the city streets. Inevitably, Lightning Jack gives the virginal Doyle advice on lovemaking.
Hogan excels when he fancies himself an outsider, but Lightning Jack is no Crocodile Dundee. He is a gobsmacked Australian and he seems pleased to be just about anywhere, but Hogan’s Kane lacks fundamental features. He’s almost too supple, rendering the character less an iconic figure of the outsider western and more a blip on the crowded radar.
Gooding fares slightly better as Doyle. His muteness allows Hogan to spend an awful lot of time in one-sided conversations. It also allows Gooding to find ways to communicate. One has to wonder why he doesn’t just write on the pad for the duration, but cinema sometimes demands complications to pass time.
There are other characters, but none of them matter much. Beverly D’Angelo has third billing and pulls into the station as Lana, Jack’s prostitute lover. She arrives in time for a third act promise and isn’t even hinted at beforehand. Kamala Lopez is Pilar, Doyle’s love interest. She, too, is a late addition to the game.
The eternal character actor Pat Hingle has a turn as a United States Marshal, while L.Q. Jones shows up as a sheriff who just so happens to know Lightning Jack. His job is to nod knowingly after a prison escape. Also, Roger Daltrey – yes, that Roger Daltrey – has a small role. And no, he doesn’t need to fight to prove he’s right.
Lightning Jack is a slice of meaningless fun and that’s fine. It’s mostly composed of old jokes, from the antiquated “suck out the venom” setup to friendly jokes about needing reading glasses. It doesn’t have much by way of visual style, with Wincer a mostly point-and-shoot director. But it’s a hospitable western comedy all the same and that may or may not be a good thing.