Retro Movie Review: The Cannonball Run I&II

April 6, 2014
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So, the serious stuff…

Now, as I’ve been so thoroughly locked into a Baja 500 Wild West mode for weeks, I decided to check out what’s out there in racing car movies and the pickings are few and far between. It’s all relative of course, but, whether it’s Ron Howard’s recent – boring – Rush (2013) or the patently unconvincing Days of Thunder (1990), racing movies are generally just bits of drama stapled on as an afterthought to watching cars making lots of noise as they go round and round and round.

If you want ‘realism’ you’ve got to go back to the 70s and mournfully slow movies like Grand Prix (1966), Winning (1969) and John Frankenheimer’s documentary-style Le Mans (1971), starring Steve McQueen, which is about the 24-hour race in France and really does seem to give you every belabored second of the race.

The best bet if you want a bit of entertainment instead of just the super macho stoicism of McQueen, Paul Newman and James Garner – or the fey Tom Cruise – are two films that tell a story. The documentary I: The Movie: Formula One gives a holistic view of the business, although it’s kind of boredom personified for any innocent who gets stuck watching it with you. My favorite is that Southern Gothic Jonathan Kaplan’s Heart Like A Wheel, in which a marvelous actress, Bonnie Bedelia, plays the real life racer, Shirley ‘Cha-Cha’ Muldowney, who goes wheel-to-wheel vroom-vroom drag racing with the good ol’ boys of Dixie and they blink. There’s actually not that much racing in it: Just enough. Great little movie. See it!

And now the stoopid stuff…

So, I’d pretty much say that no director has yet been able to make true entertainment out of watching cars go round and round a track, although I do own a unique guilty pleasure crush for Cannonball Run.  Not that it’s a ‘good’ movie, per sé; it’s more like watching your parents fight once you’re middle-aged. You are, in equal parts amused, horrified and surprisingly familiar with the dialogue.

After the massive box-office success of Smokey & the Bandit (1977) and Smokey & the Bandit 2 (1981), Burt Reynolds and his best-buddy sidekick, director and former stunt-man Hal Needham, were desperately looking for a new vehicle as an over-exposed Reynolds’ charm had begun to wane. After hanging out with champion racer Brock Yates at ‘The ‘Run’ – a 70s-era street race from New York to California – Reynolds was even more impressed by the all-stops-out, sometimes illegal craziness of the Baja 500 race he attended in Mexico. With Yates, Needham and Producer Al Ruddy in tow, Reynolds commissioned a slapstick comedy script.

Plot-wise, Reynolds is J.J. McClure, a racing car driver, mechanic and standing champ in the race. Desperate to keep his title, J.J. and his weird buddy, Victor (Dom Delouse), adopt a subterfuge of being two paramedics driving a patient cross-country. The supporting cast includes Jamie Farr as a crazy Sheik driving a souped-up Rolls Royce, Roger Moore in James Bond mode driving a silver Aston Martin, and, best of all, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. as a pair of womanizing, degenerate, gambling, hard-boozing priests driving a red Ferrari. Both seem convincingly shit-faced throughout. Mayhem ensues and there’s not a single slapstick scene that misses out on having a celebrity crash or get in some kind of collision.

Meanwhile Burt Reynolds coasts as his same ol’ good ol’ bwoy self. On the way to California, J.J drinks massive amounts of beer, and survives a lot of crashes. Hated by the critics, it was an absolute boffo box-office hit, ultimately turning out to be Reynolds’ last big bite at the fading apple of stardom. In its totality, the movie is sort of goofily funny. It’s a comedy, of course, but it’s mostly just a bunch of stuff happening around cars crashing. The biggest laugh comes from voluptuous Adrienne Barbeau repeatedly removing her jump suit.

You surely won’t be surprised if I tell you the sequel is more of the same. This time Burt and Dom travel with a pair of fake nuns. The romantic pairing of Reynolds with an old lady psychic, bizarrely played by Shirley McClaine will amaze you. Better yet though is Taxis snub-nosed little girl-next-door, Marilu Henner, playing a desperately horny coochie mama with the hots for (hunh?) Dom De Luise. Best of all, beyond the vicissitudes of fate and the cross-country road race, is the final appearance of what the P.R. folks called “the original Rat Pack.” Frank Sinatra shows up to hold court with Dean and Sammy.  It’s a last fun hurrah and worth the price of admission.

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