Dream a Dream of the Daring Dragoon
I dunno how this happened. It’s an uneasy feeling, and a little creepy even, like waking up in the middle of a dream and not being sure if you were merely dreaming or whether you were remembering something that actually happened. I feel like I slipped into a parallel universe where things are exactly identical to the dimension I just left except that — what the hell? — Jack of All Trades is freakin’ hilarious.
How can it be that I remember this show — or did I merely dream it? — being a sort of half-baked, pale-imitation, tossed-off cashing-on on the wacky-historical action-comedy genre as Hercules had left the air and Xena was fading fast? It’s the same shemps in action, after all, as with Herc and Xena, Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert behind the camera and Bruce Campbell in front of it, so the connection was obvious, a desire to keep a gravy train pumping out gravy, or something, but what felt forced and phony six years ago is suddenly the most outrageous thing I’ve seen in ages. Has the world gone so far down the road to hell in half a decade that a sendup of transcontinental intrigue and the idiocies of politicians and the transgressions of governments (a tax on poor people in an attempt to eliminate poverty? oh my) is all of a sudden so much more potent as parody? Wait, don’t answer that…
I mean, Wow. The bad French accents and the awful puns and the worse character assassinations of historical figures… they’re all deliberate and calculated, of course, but they obviously were in 2000, too, when these 22 episodes aired at weirdly unwatchable times (3 in the afternoon, 3 in the morning) on never-findable syndicated “networks,” and yet now suddenly I’m finding it all wildly funny in a Three Stooges-meets-Daniel Boorstin kind of way. This is way smarter than I recall: the adventures of Campbell’s American secret agent Jack Stiles, a “scoundrel with a heart,” on the French-controlled South Pacific island of Palau Palau in 1801 actually assume that the viewer knows some late-18th-, early-19th-century history. It’s the only way that its jokes about Lewis and Clark and Ben Franklin and Emperor Napoleon and — this just about takes my breath away — the Louisiana Purchase can truly work.
And these episodes are mind-blowingly funny, and I don’t mean in a raucous laugh-out-loud way — though they frequently are that, too; there’s plenty of goofball comic swordfights and such — but in a jaw-dropping, they-did-NOT-just-do-that kind of way. The talking parrot who is Jack’s secret informer is madcap enough, but oh, the spectre of seeing the emperor of France literally reduced to a caricature of a horny dwarf who flies at his enemies like Chow Yun-Fat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which this predates, as it does similarly toned Pirates of the Caribbean)… Lunatic minds are at work here, and why aren’t they working more?
I have only myself to blame, perhaps: I did not recognize the wonderfully evil genius of Jack when it mattered. Or perhaps Raimi and Tapert and Campbell et al were ahead of their time and only needed the world to fall apart in order for their mad-science-comedy to be appreciated.
Oh! And there’s mad science, too, loverly anachronisms in the submarine and pseudo-hologram and the other delicious doodads “invented” by Jack’s cover, Emilia Rothschild (Angela Dotchin), a British citizen masquerading as a merchant but secret working to bring down the French, as Jack is. (He’s pretending to be her manservant while he works to “defend democracy.”) If only Professor Wickwire, Brisco County Jr.’s personal mad scientist, had known, 90 years later, that he’d been beaten to so many punches by a girl… But hey, Emilia is one cool smart chick, even if she is inexcusably immune to Jack’s clear scoundrelish charms (all together now: we like him because he’s a scoundrel), but that’s okay, because it means the show gets to be unbelievably risque as Jack makes witty if caddish advances on her. I’m fairly unshockable, I think, but I did gasp to see some of the sexy (if PG13-rated) stuff they dared with Jack (the scene with Jack and Emilia in the coffin? ho boy…) Or maybe it’s just that I was imagining being the object of Jack’s caddish advances, which would not have been turned down. (What the hell kind of idiot is she, this cool smart chick? Damn…)
I can’t believe that I did not see six years ago that Jack was the perfect outlet for Campbell’s talents: not only does he snark out endless bad puns and groan-inducing one-liners and get to be an all-around wiseass, but he has the opportunity to buckle some swash as the Daring Dragoon, a Robin Hood type who comes to the constant rescue of the people of Palau Palau, with the mask and the cape and the sword and the droll rejoinders to the rich morons in power. It’s like half “Bruce Campbell for president!” and half “Ooo, honey, wear the Daring Dragoon costume tonight.”