Coy “Cannonball” Buckman is an ex-stock car champion with a very shady past. Wrongfully incarcerated for the death of a young woman during a race, he’s recently been released from prison and is looking to reclaim his good name. Along with his best friend Zippo, Cannonball decides to compete in the highly illegal, underground car rally known as the Trans-American Outlaw Road Race. But he faces stiff competition for the $100,000 first prize. There is country singer Perman Waters, who hopes to use the contest as a way of publicizing his career. There is Wolfe Messer, a German Grand Prix driver who hopes to show up the Americans with his souped-up European automobile. Jim and Maryann are two surfers who hope to win the cash so that they can buy a beach house in Hawaii. And Sandy Harris has brought two of her waitress friends along for the get-rich-quick ride.
Even though Cannonball is the favorite to win, two conflicting elements conspire to keep the bold Buckman down. One is longtime nemesis Cade Redman, who wants Cannonball out of the race…at any cost. And the other, oddly enough, is Coy’s brother, Benny, who’s in debt up to his cement shoes with the mafia. If Cannonball doesn’t win, the entire Buckman family stands to lose…permanently. It’s a demolition derby between good and evil, life and death, as lean, mean automotive machines traverse the highways and byways of this great land of ours, hoping to be the next bicoastal racing champion.
Like a cool breeze blowing across a summer’s evening at the local drive-in, Cannonball is pure, unadulterated B-movie magic. Part cornball chase picture, part idiosyncratic comedy, this sequel of sorts to Death Race 2000 (the same creative team is involved, though the story is markedly different) is a randy reminder of why certain staid formulas seem to always work so well. No matter the premise (illegal race across the country) or personalities involved (hard-bitten ex-cons, hillbilly hick singer), a good old-fashioned land-speed story is entertainment at its most primal.
Call it male machismo moviemaking or a well-honed tapping into of America’s love affair with the automobile, but whenever you pit vehicle against vehicle in an all-out contest to the end/prize/death/revenge, the results are resplendent. Some films have forged their entire identity on such horsepower hijinx—The Blues Brothers, The Junkman, Gone in 60 Seconds—while others have traded on the epic pavement power struggle to underline their larger point (Bullitt, The French Connection, and Ronin are good examples of this supplementary ploy). But for some reason, Cannonball careens off the top of the pleasure dome to resonate with a combination of craziness and craftiness to circumvent all possible pitfalls—not to mention plot potholes. Certainly, this is a low-rent actioner with a budget to match its less than broad scope, and you’ve probably seen better bumper-to-bumper ballistics in modern TV cop shows. But there is a special sublime quality to this high-octane oddity that really gets down deep in your merriment manifolds, producing untold RPMs of rejoicing.
It all begins in the setup. David Carradine, fresh from Kung Fu and Death Race 2000, is the washed-up, recently paroled from prison stock car champion who hides a secret sin that burdens his hardened soul. Winning this cross-country grand prix will offer him redemption and a less tarnished reputation—especially with his correctional officer girlfriend (essayed by the beautiful Veronica Hamel). Naturally, there is a mechanic sidekick—with the great name of Zippo—who idolizes and worships the very seat Dave sits on, and the black cloud of doom hovering over this wide-eyed worshiper is so thick it’s like the near-solid sludge in a frozen crankcase. Add the no-good brother (Corman main man Dick Miller, as brilliant as ever) who’s in hock up to his hemorrhoids with the mob, and the insane maniac bad guy (genre giant Bill McKinney, Deliverance, She Freak) who wants to get back at Carradine for reasons that seem more crackpot than concrete, and the basic cornerstones of car crash bedlam are in place.
But the wonderful thing that director Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000, Eating Raoul) does with his retro road race is flesh out the subplots with conspicuous eccentricities. Indeed, it is the ancillary characters, the oddballs off to the side that really sell Cannonball as something more than a low-rent Smokey and the Bandit. While there is no one here as instantly memorable as Jackie Gleason’s foul-mouthed fussbudget Buford T. Justice, Bartel still gives us the Cole Porter–obsessed Mafioso, the atonal, quasi-talented country bumpkin singer (Gerrit Graham), the self-righteous Euro-trash champion (James Keach) and dozens of delightful cameos. Indeed, throughout the course of Cannonball, be on the lookout for such AIP stalwarts as Martin Scorsese, Sylvester Stallone, Joe Dante, Don Simpson, Mary Woronov, and the low-budget legend himself, Roger Corman.
Still, for all the acting chops and prickly personalities therein, a film like Cannonball is really a director’s medium. How well you respond to its road rage comes in direct proportion to how successful Bartel is in anchoring the action. Thankfully, the man’s skill with a camera is considerable, and while you’ve probably seen better highway histrionics in big-budget stunt flicks, you’ve never experienced the high-speed chase in quite the same way as he delivers it here. Bartel enjoys positioning the camera at or near street level, accenting the feel and flow of the road beneath the wheels. He then cross-cuts to aerial shots of the vehicles in strategic circumstances, allowing the curve of the concrete or the upcoming landscape to dictate the dynamics and suspense.
Certainly, the action sequence has exploded in the nearly 30 years since Cannonball was made (the superhighway surrealism of The Matrix Reloaded‘s freeway fracas comes to mind). But as an example of nuts-and-bolts, no-CGI engine block stunt work, including a couple of absolutely incredible sequences (the gap jump and the pileup), Cannonball has a nice revved-up reality. Sure, it is an over-the-top tapestry of spark plug parameters that pushes the envelope of believability as it roars toward the finish line. But within its muscle car madness breathes a true escapist delight. And what more do you want on a sultry August evening at the neighborhood passion pit than a mindless exercise in gearbox gratuity? While it is the lesser of Bartel’s street beat ballyhoo (Death Race 2000 is just a fantastic bit of futuristic foolishness), Cannonball still delivers the appropriate axle greasing.