Documentary About Sam Jones Doesn’t Dig Deep
You could tell an interesting story about Sam Jones; how an aspiring actor got a big break (in Jones’s case, being cast as the lead in the campy 1980 version of Flash Gordon), only to see it slip away through bad advice and his own youthful arrogance. There followed a waning career, depression, a suicide attempt, then salvation and a new maturity. Not to mention the last laugh of seeing his signature film, derided in some quarters on its original release, now fondly regarded as a highly enjoyable cult classic. But Life After Flash bungles the job by mashing two stories together: the production of the Flash Gordon film, and Sam Jones’s life. Each subject is indeed worthy of its own film. But cramming them together means that the film explores neither in suitable depth.
It’s a disappointment, because Jones’s career arc provides such rich terrain. Once a hoped-for football career didn’t pan out, Jones headed for Hollywood (oddly, the film only covers this part of his story in a bonus feature on the DVD). He posed nude for Playgirl and landed a secondary role in the comedy 10. And then came his first starring role, in Flash Gordon.
Flash Gordon, a glitzy, big budget (for its time) production, was producer Dino De Laurentiis’s attempt to get aboard the sci-fi/fantasy bandwagon that Star Wars launched. Life After Flash devotes considerable time talking about the auditions, the costume design, the set design, the special effects, the music, the trailers, and the poster art.
But it curiously glosses over what turned out to be a key turning point in Jones’s career. Martha De Laurentiis (a film producer and Dino’s wife) circumspectly refers to Jones’s problematic “behavior patterns” during the production that led at one point to his getting in a brawl that left him with a gash on his face. That’s not what you want to see on your leading man. Dino’s pleas that Jones get his act together “fell on deaf ears,” in Martha’s words. Further disagreements led to Jones not returning to the film after a Christmas break. Another actor dubbed in some of his dialogue, and the director used a stand-in for some scenes. They scrapped the idea for a series of sequels.
This is the heart of Jones’s story: he took his lucky break and broke it in two. But Life After Flash leaves you hanging. Did Jones regret his decision? Did he think he blew it? Jones admits people regarded him as a “bitter actor,” but otherwise says little about how much he thinks the fallout from Flash Gordon impacted his subsequent career. In fact, you hear nothing about any of the film or TV projects he worked on until the release of the Ted and Ted 2 films (in 2012 and 2015, respectively). How does he look back on that work now? Did he feel overlooked? Under-appreciated? Did the difficulties of the period lead to the end of his first marriage? Does he think of the road not taken? It would have been interesting to explore these avenues. But the film ignores them.
Then comes another long sequence about the Flash Gordon cult phenomenon. There are far too many interviews with the fans that attend the conventions, the well-known actors and directors that like the film, and the collectors who show off an array of Flash Gordon props they’ve acquired. At times, Jones risks becoming a cipher in his own movie.
Things pick up in the latter part of the film, when the story again focuses on Jones. As his career faded away, he reinvented himself and ended up working as a bodyguard. Then Ted gave his acting career a welcome boost, and subsequent jobs followed. Today, he’s found contentment in a second marriage, and carries himself on the fan convention circuit with grace. He says he talked to Dino before Dino died, and all was forgiven. It’s the happy ending you knew was coming.
Sam Jones is a survivor. And that’s the story that should’ve taken center stage in Life After Flash, with the footage about the film’s creation served up as DVD bonus features (or used to make another movie). Jones, as one of the film’s executive producers, may not have been interested in examining his life too closely. But it ends up being a watered-down version of a story that should’ve been a lot more compelling.