Directed By: Hal Needham
Starring: Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett
Tag line: "You'll root for them all...but you'll never guess who wins"
Trivia: Burt Reynolds received a then-record $5 million salary for his work on this film (his part took three weeks to finish)
Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run isn’t so much a movie as it is a party on film. As you’re watching it, you get the feeling that everyone had a great time making the picture, a hunch that’s verified once the final credits roll (when we’re treated to the outtakes, which feature plenty of laughter and goofing around). Considering the film’s high level of frivolity, I’m betting a good number of you will find The Cannonball Run a tedious experience, but as someone who watched it dozens of times on cable TV, I admit to being a fan. Yes, The Cannonball Run feels like a party for its cast, but at least the audience was invited along.
The story is as thin as they come: The Cannonball, an annual cross-country car race from Connecticut to California, is set to begin, and contestants are lining up to participate. Of course, if they’re to have any chance of winning, the racers will have to drive well over the speed limit, forcing them to find “creative” ways to avoid being stopped by the police. Plot-wise, that’s all there is; like I said, it’s pretty thin stuff. One thing that’s not thin, however, is the cast, which has more than a dozen recognizable personalities. Burt Reynolds stars as JJ McClure, who, along with his mechanic Victor (Dom DeLuise), is driving what he believes is a vehicle no cop will dare mess with: an ambulance! They’ve even managed to secure a physician for the trip, the alcoholic proctologist Dr. Van Helsing (Jack Elam), and kidnap a sexy young woman named Pamela Glover (Farrah Fawcett) to pose as the patient they’re transporting. Prior to being lured into the ambulance, Pamela was the assistant of Mr. Arthur J. Foyt (George Furth), a representative of the Safety Enforcement Unit who’s trying to shut the race down. As if the kidnapping charge hanging over his head wasn’t enough, JJ also has to deal with Victor’s “alter ego”, an obnoxious superhero named Captain Chaos whose personality can take over Victor’s body without a moment’s notice.
Racing against JJ and Victor are a pair of gamblers in a red Ferrari dressed as Catholic priests (Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.); two bodacious babes (Tara Buckman and Adrienne Barbeau) in a Lamborghini; An Asian racer (Jackie Chan) and his mechanic (Michael Hull) in a souped-up Subaru hatchback; A wealthy Middle-Eastern Sheik (Jamie Farr) in a Rolls Royce; Two country bumpkins (Football great Terry Bradshaw and country singer Mel Tillis) in a replica NASCAR racer; playboy millionaire Brad Compton (Bert Convy) and his associate Finch (Warren Berlinger), who disguise themselves as a newlywed couple and climb on Compton’s motorcycle; a pair of tow-truck drivers (Rick Aviles and Alfie Wise) who have a close call with a freight train; and actor Roger Moore (as himself), who, still in the throes of playing super spy James Bond, drives an Aston Martin (what else?). Along the way, the teams do everything they can to sabotage one another while, at the same time, avoiding the cops as they speed from sea to shining sea. But who will cross the finish line first?
As comedies go, The Cannonball Run is pretty standard stuff, with much of the humor stemming from the contestants tossing out insults at one another (Sammy Davis Jr. is called “shorty” more than once) and bragging they’ll be the first to reach California. Even more routine is the fact every vehicle is eventually pulled over by the police, forcing the drivers to think on their feet (instead of talking their way out of a ticket, Buckman and Barbeau simply unzip their skintight race suits and show the approaching officer a little cleavage, which usually does the trick). On top of that, the movie is a bit of a mess story-wise; some scenes are thrown in that have nothing to do with the race (the drivers, stopped by road construction, get into a fistfight with a biker gang headed up by Peter Fonda), and a few characters fall by the wayside before the film ends (Jamie Farr’s Sheik disappears after a scene or two). What makes it so entertaining, though, is the energy Needham and his performers bring to the table, and the fact that each and every one of them had an absolute blast, laughing it up and joking around both in front of the camera and behind it.
With its cast and crew having so much fun, it’s easy get caught up in the movie, and if you’re willing to overlook its problems, The Cannonball Run will give you one hell of a ride.