Harry Fishbine (Allen Garfield) is the owner of the F+B Ambulance Company, and he's well aware the competition between them and their rivals in this area of Los Angeles, the Unity Ambulance Company, hence the pep talk he's giving his paramedics tonight to go out there and grab every patient they can: with privatised services, the more sick and injured people they secure the more money it means for them. One driver isn't really listening, and he's Mother (Bill Cosby), because being an old hand at this business he's heard it all before - but there are still things that can surprise even him.
Mother, Jugs and Speed was part of the Hollywood strain of black comedy ushered in by Robert Altman, and the director here, Peter Yates, may not have employed the trademark overlapping dialogue of that filmmaker, but in tone it was very much Altman lite. That tone veered more wildly than even the ambulances, one scene aiming straight for the funny bone, the next going for the heartstrings, and it was true the humour was more of a success than the emotional business, no matter how much they tried to punch the audience in the gut (not literally, of course). Then again, those jokes depended on that end of society's tether mood for you to sympathise with.
So if you were not of the opinion that society was heading downhill faster than a runaway ambulance then the jokes would pass you by, and you'd be more likely pondering how something with so much deliberate bad taste (and produced by cartoon king Joseph Barbera to boot) managed to get a PG rating back in 1976, what with the amount of editing and overdubbing the studio put in place to tone it down; granted the rules for movie ratings were laxer back then, but even so the sight of Larry Hagman attempting to rape an unconscious woman in the back of his vehicle was strong stuff, though there was little explicit about it you could tell very well what was going on. Indeed, this might have been more effective if they had retained everything that would have offered it an R rating.
Though not even the romance between Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel as Jugs and Speed respectively could soothe the essential hard edge to the film. Jugs is the dispatcher who wants to leave her desk behind and drive herself, Speed is the detective on unpaid suspension for an accusation of drug dealing who needs this job to make ends meet while the authorities decide whether he's guilty or innocent, and although Jugs - OK, let's call her Jennifer, it's what she prefers - is aloof from any propositions as far as her co-workers know, Speed eases his way into her affections when he saves her skin from the cops one day. That being one of the setpieces, of which this was a string, some better than others but supplying what if nothing else was a one of a kind cast.
Yes, there was Bill Cosby getting a massage from three prostitutes with a couple of vibrators, but there was also Bruce Davison smoking from a bong while on duty, L.Q. Jones as a cop taking bribes with goodnatured menace, Hey Mickey singer Toni Basil brandished a shotgun as a junkie needing a fix, and the aforementioned Hagman was obviously having a ball as one of the scuzziest characters of the decade. With this subject matter understandably there was a serious side, that is people dying, though Tom Mankiewicz's script tried to catch the audience off guard by mixing the expected demises of patients with the other characters. So one moment the paramedics are failing to move a fat woman who has broken her hip because she's too heavy, the next there's a tragic development with a woman in labour, the sort of crunching gear changes that even the most accomplished filmmakers might balk at attempting. If it's not that smooth, there were some good laughs amongst the sad face business.