[21 October 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Like Seals and Crofts once said, something like this will never pass this way again. Not anytime soon. You can have all your updated Ocean films and their A-list Academy accolade casting or your various collections of comedy icons, but for sheer star power and its stunted possibilities, nothing can beat 1981’s crackpot masterpiece Cannonball Run. The result of Burt Reynolds’ unbelievable box office reign (he was the most popular star in movies from 1978 - 1982…no kidding) and the chutzpah to wallow in said commercial cache, this is the origin of efforts like Grown Ups, the Adam Sandler laugher (?) that is best left forgotten. In essence, the mustached macho man and his various friends and professional associates decided to get together, laugh a lot, and make a movie about a legendary ‘70s car rally from New York to California. What they wound up with is a unique time capsule, a genius distillation of everything the post-Peace/pre-Reagan years stood for in 95 nutty minutes.
Reynolds plays J.J. McClure, a garage mechanic and owner who, along with his portly sidekick Victor (Dom DeLuise) is looking for a way to win the annual Cannonball Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. After coming up with several schemes, they decide to pose as paramedics and drive a souped-up ambulance. hoping this will keep their cause from being undermined by speed conscious cops. They are joined in the 3000 mile race by pretend priests Jamie(Dean Martin) and Morris (Sammy Davis, Jr.), riding in a Ferrari, big breasted bombshells Jill (Tara Buckman) and Marcie (Adrienne Barbeau) in a Lamborghini, a pair of Japanese computer experts (Jackie Chan and Michael Hui) in a Subaru, a couple of rednecks (Mel Tillis, Terry Bradshaw) in a stock car, a Middle-Eastern Sheikh (Jamie Farr) in a Rolls Royce, and a confused girdle magnate (Roger Moore) who swears he is the famous James Bond star…in an Aston Martin, of course.
Along the way, JJ and Victor pick up mad doctor Nikolas Van Helsing (Jack Elam), as well as nature photographer and tree lover Pamela “Beauty” Glover (Farrah Fawcett). In addition to the various state police and local sheriffs, the racers have to contend with a bumbling Washington bureaucrat named Arthur J. Foyt (George Furth). He wants the rally stopped for environmental and safety reasons. He also has his eye on Pamela and her viable assets. Another hitch for our heroes comes in the persona of “Captain Chaos,” an anxiety based alter ego of Victor’s. Whenever trouble starts brewing, our beefy sidekick dons a mask and cape and becomes a defiant defender of justice. After several accidents, a few roadblocks, a run in with a bullying biker gang (lead by Peter Fonda, no less), it’s a nail-biting sprint to the finish line…and cross-country racing immortality.
Unless you were around when this epic first made waves in Cineplexes worldwide, it is safe to say that you’ve NEVER seen anything quite like Cannonball Run. More or less a home movie on a massive scale concocted by Reynolds and his regular team of collaborators (stuntman turned director Hal Needham, best buddy and frequent co-star DeLuise), it represents a dozen called-in favors and a similar stockpiling of personal IOUs. How else would you explain Roger Moore, at perhaps the height of his 007 popularity, mercilessly mocking his license to kill image? Or what about fading Rat Packers Martin and Davis Jr. as frequently intoxicated men of the cloth? Where else but in an antiquated work of car chase cornpone could you find stuttering savant Mel Tillis butting heads with Super Bowl champion Terry Bradshaw as well as M*A*S*H* man Farr and former adolescent male fantasy foldout Fawcett?
Indeed, the whole experience is like watching a land cruiser Love Boat. It’s akin to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World without the common decency to be deliberately funny. You will laugh long and hard at Cannonball Run, it just won’t be at the jokes. Instead, you will giggle at the ego and arrogance of everyone, of seeing celebrated superstars - and they were beyond HUGE in their day - take a potent paid vacation at the audience’s expense. There is no attempt at character, no need to render personality or individual quirks. Reynolds is a stud, Fawcett is a female, and Furth is the kind of nervous nincompoop that Don Knotts rode to significant small (and big) screen success two decades before. Sure, there are moments that do inspire an honest snicker or two (you can’t beat Elam or DeLuise when it comes to funny business), but this is really a showcase for quality physical effects - and it’s a pretty decent highlight reel at that.
With CG so prevalent today, it’s refreshing to see real cars driving off ravines and crashing into each other. It says a great deal about the state of stunt work in 2011 that the efforts here feel both dated and definitive. Sure, we don’t get the quick cut chaos of the post post-modern action film, but Needham is not a stylish director. Instead, he’s like a glorified photographer, making sure everything is framed properly and in focus before pulling the switch and unleashing the motorized mayhem. Unlike his previous Smokey and the Bandit or Hooper, the car stuff is just embellishment. We don’t get the kind of awe inspiring spectacle of Reynolds’ past, nor do we see something similar to the four wheeled wildness of John Landis ala The Blues Brothers. Instead, Needham uses the sequences as accents, showing that these carefree kooks are really in a kind of implied peril.
Oddly enough, it’s law enforcement, not the race competitors themselves, that take most of the twisted metal brunt of this film. Though based on the real contest and concocted from Needham and writer Brock Yates’ own experience and participation, the end result is a hoot, not a hallowed attempt at the truth. Indeed, this was a chance for fans to see their favorites, to relish in their limelight likeability one more time. Before videotape and home theater systems, something like Cannonball Run was a reminder of icons past and stars present. It’s classicism comes from recognizing what it has to offer and selling it skillfully.
In 2011, a bunch of big name celebrities would unwillingly show up for a similarly, themed adventure and immediately demand their own branding moments and individual highlight. Here, Reynolds canvassed the available high profilers and fooled everyone into thinking they were making magic. Instead, Cannonball Run, in all its racially questionable, dramatically inert expertise, becomes a signpost to the decade past, to the era where Watergate provided just enough disillusion to make disco possible. Amid the slapstick and stupidity, showboating and slights, there is an entertainment unlike any other. While it’s not always coherent, Cannonball Run remains a legend in its own oil-slicked mind. Perhaps it’s finally time to celebrate it as such.