Monday, November 24, 2014

#1,561. The Cannonball Run (1981)

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 cinematic party. 

As you’re watching this 1981 film, you get the distinct feeling that everyone had a great time making it, 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). 

Taking this high level of frivolity into account, I’m betting a good many people will find The Cannonball Run a tedious experience, but as someone who watched it dozens of times on cable TV in the '80s, I admit to being a fan. 

Yes, The Cannonball Run feels like a private party for its cast, but at least the audience was invited, too.

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 pulled over by the cops. 

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 a few dozen recognizable personalities. Burt Reynolds stars as JJ McClure, who, along with his mechanic Victor (Dom DeLuise), is driving what he thinks is a vehicle no cop will dare mess with: an ambulance! They’ve managed to secure a physician for the trip, the alcoholic proctologist Dr. Van Helsing (Jack Elam), and JJ even kidnaps the sexy 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 is trying to shut the race down. 

As if the kidnapping charge hanging over his head wasn’t enough, JJ also has to contend with Victor’s “alter ego”, an obnoxious superhero named Captain Chaos whose personality often takes control of Victor’s body without a moment’s notice.

Racing against JJ and Victor are a pair of gamblers in a red Ferrari posing 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 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 that 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 Cannonball Run 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 that director 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 (I assume) 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 be one hell of a ride!


Mike said...

Good review. Thanks for the great reminder of just how cheesy fun this movie was to watch, I've been meaning to pay it a revisit one of these days.

Anonymous said...

I fondly remember this film from cable viewings when I was a child, and I used it to fill the gaps between episodes of WACKY RACES (I always rooted for the Gruesome Twosome). Now that I'm older, I find that I prefer David Carradine's CANNONBALL--although CANNONBALL RUN is the "official" Cannonball movie, as it was scripted by Brock Yates.

Still...I think I'd take WACKY RACES over either of them.

Nice review!

Peter Nielsen said...

Nice one, Dave! I love this flick, as cheesy as it may be! Great fun! It's one of those where you put your brain in neutral and just enjoy the ride!
It think I actually watched this in the theater as a young teen, and has since then watched it so many times it's almost ridiculous.