The Cannonball Run (1981) – Directed by Hal Needham – Starring Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Dom DeLuise, Farah Fawcett, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., George Furth, Adrienne Barbeau, Jackie Chan, Jack Elam, Jamie Farr, Terry Bradshaw, Mel Tillis, Bert Convy, Peter Fonda, Rick Aviles, Tara Buckman, Michael Hui, Joe Klecko, and one sweet ass black Lamborghini Countach.
There was no movie my brother and I rented more from the local video store when we were kids than THE CANNONBALL RUN. If the Music Forum (in hindsight, a really dumb name for a video rental store) didn’t have anything we wanted, they always had CANNONBALL waiting for us. (Or Clue. Or Cannonball Run II.) I probably haven’t seen it in over 20 years, and if you’ve been following along on Facebook, you know it’s taken this stupid film almost two months to get to me, which officially makes it the second-longest wait in the history of my Netflix queue. (Inglorious Basterds took four months.) Two months is a long time to wait for anything (except for a baby – then it’s wicked short), so I was a bit nervous to drop CANNONBALL in the DVD player and see if it held up.
It holds up.
In fact, CANNONBALL is the rare childhood joy that has actually increased its enjoyment with my age, now that I actually know who these people are. As a kid, almost everyone in this movie was, “______ from CANNONBALL RUN,” so when I watched the film then they were just people in a movie. I had no idea who Dean Martin or Jackie Chan or Jack Elam or Adrienne Barbeau were, but they became “Funny Drunk Priest,” “Funny Kung-Fu Driver,” “Crazy-Eyed Doctor,” and “Woman in Countach.”
The Countach was as much a star as any of the actors. Still Lambo’s most famous car, the Countach manages to be both ridiculous and sublime, futuristic and dated, cutting edge and classic. It’s everything that Batmobile should be (and maybe could be? Make it happen, Nolan.), even if Bats would have to do something about the doors.
CANNONBALL opens with Barbeau’s black Countach (this one, in fact) toying with a cop in a Firebird through desert highways as Ray Stevens’ title track plays over the top and the credits roll. The moment that sealed the chase scene for me was when the cop car whizzed by some open road and then then the Countach pulled out AND WENT AFTER IT.
How was a ten-year old kid not going to love that?
More than anything else, CANNONBALL RUN probably introduced to me my love of cars, chase movies, Dean Martin, and boobs.
Thank you, Hal Needham and Brock Yates. Thank you.
CANNONBALL RUN is, of course, almost completely and utterly devoid of any sense of political correctness but what it is, what it does beautifully, is present a live-action comedy cartoon for adults who know that, yes, pretending to be doctors and kidnapping Farrah Fawcett is wrong. So is drinking and driving, no matter how cool Terry Bradshaw, Mel Tillis, Roger Moore, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. make it look. Telling a cop that someone is a sex offender? Not right. Unzipping your top to try and get out of a speeding ticket? Not only is it wrong, it doesn’t work. (Eat me, Ohio. I despise you more with every passing day.)
I’m not going to turn CANNONBALL RUN into some kind of symbol for Comedy’s Last Stand Against the Takes Everything Too Seriously Crowd, because there are lines that can’t and shouldn’t be crossed, but comedy allows us to play with ideas in a pretend safety world where Burt Reynolds can drink a beer as he flies a plane, then lands the plane in the middle of a downtown street so Dom can buy more beer, and then takes off as people dodge out of the way.
We all know this is wrong, yes? It’s still cool. Even as a kid, I recognized that this was probably not something to be attempted. You know how I knew this? Because kids aren’t stupid, and we don’t need to sanitize everything in society just because there’s exceptions to that rule.
When Bradshaw and Tillis are driving their NASCAR-inspired Donnie Allison Hawaiian Tropic car away from the cops (another no-no) and ditch it in a pool as people scatter, you don’t have to worry about the consequences of people getting hurt. There’s no moment of, “OH MY GOD, DID TERRY BRADSHAW JUST KILL A BABY?!?!?!?” because this is a car race comedy and so your only real question is, “What does this do to the car?”
As Tillis says a few scenes later: “The only thing hiding it in the pool did was make it look pretty.”
The plot in CANNONBALL RUN is supremely minimal. There’s a cross country race. People drive across country. Hilarity ensues. Someone wins. (The film doesn’t even follow through on the correct rules about who should win. The Cannonball is a time trial and yet, at the end, everyone has forgot this and decides that whomever punches their ticket first wins.) The film simply tacks funny bit after funny bit as the race progresses westward.
Burt Reynolds is the star and this is Burt Reynolds semi-parodying Burt Reynolds. (The amount of self-parody that accompanies Burt’s career is mind-boggling.) He plays a guy who wants to win the race, who decrees to Farrah Fawcett in the back of an ambulance how he decides to go after whatever he wants the moment he wants it (yet doesn’t, as you would expect, immediately try to get Farrah nekkid), and yet is also so laid back that you half-expect J.J. McClure to turn back into Burt and wander off the set in pursuit of that hot new extra standing by the hot dog cart.
McClure and his partner Victor Prinsi (DeLuise) are pretending to be ambulance drivers and Jack Elam plays a wacked out proctologist they’re using as a cover. Needing a female patient to play on the sympathies of any cop should they somehow manage to get pulled over, they kidnap Pamela Glover (Fawcett), who Reynolds renames “Beauty” for the length of the picture, and then drug her so she’s all loopy for the cops that do, in fact, pull them over.
Glover is the ultimate nature-loving dreamer type, who’s also a photographer for some reason that has no pay-off in the movie. “I love trees,” she tells everyone in a voice that is as sweet and innocent as it is naive and dumb. She’s not so dumb that she thinks being kidnapped is awesome, however.
The film mitigates the kidnapping in several ways besides the fact that this is a ridiculous comedy. For starters, it creates an obvious attraction between Glover and McClure the night before, so when Glover is pulled into the ambulance and Prinsi takes off before the film’s do-goody, nerdy bad guy Arthur J. Foyt (Furth) can jump in the back she’s not exactly among strangers or trying to escape.
The most important and telling way that it stays clear of any possible bad vibe is that McClure is completely gentlemanly towards Beauty (besides renaming her, that is) the entire trip. There’s the requisite scene where Fawcett strips down to bare legs and light shirt, but McClure doesn’t put the moves on her despite them being alone in the back and despite his “I go after what I want” speech. Instead, he simply tells her about his dad, who worked in the coal mines and died two days before retirement. You think it’s going to be a line, but if it is, it’s a line with a long-term pay-off that happens after the final credits roll. McClure’s primary interest is in winning the race – they need a female patient (so they’ve decided), and Glover was in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time.
She admits to him during this scene that she was nervous. “What did you think was going to happen?” McClure asks. “Gang rape,” she answers sheepishly. “Gang rape?” he asks incredulously. “We’re racers, not rapists.”
Comedy that it is, the film wants you to know it knows they’re aware of how this whole kidnap-a-woman-into-an-ambulance thing can be read and they don’t want to risk turning you against Reynolds by having him take advantage of her.
To make this point one last time, there’s a scene where Jackie Chan is driving his car and pops a porno into the car’s VCR. The porno of choice is Marilyn Chambers’ Behind the Green Door, which has Chambers being kidnapped and then forced to perform sex acts in front of a live audience. There’s a voice-over narration on the tape that explains this, a not-so-subtle message to the audience that this is not happening with Farrah Fawcett.
CANNONBALL RUN isn’t particularly a laugh riot from start to finish, but it is constantly amusing and it does contain several very funny scenes, typically involving the feud between Raynolds/DeLuise and Martin/Davis, Jr. Martin and Davis pretend to be priests (Blake and Fenderbaum, respectively) and drive a Ferrari 308 GTS. Often, Dean is drunk because Dean being drunk is funny.
Their best scene together is a verbal throwdown between Dean and Burt where they trade knowing but uncomfortable insults at each other, daring the other one to take a step closer to the Insult That Goes Too Far. Blake is angry for McClure lying to the cops about them being sex offenders, and McClure shoots back that he was just getting even for what Blake and “the chocolate monk did back in Ohio.” (They let the air out the ambulance’s tires.) Fenderbaum is offended, but Blake pretends to come to McClure’s aid just so he can top the insult. “He can say that,” he assures Fenderbaum, “because he’s riding around with the Goodyear blimp.” It’s Prinsi’s turn to be offended, but McClure assures him that Blake can say that because, well, because he’s got a big nose. They never get around to making fun of Reynold’s for being a Southerner, but that’s because they’ve got to go beat up Peter Fonda and his biker gang friends.
By the time Prinsi gives up his sure shot at winning to save a dog from drowning, everyone is ready to celebrate and hang out and get drunk together.
And why not? As Stevens sings in the title track, “it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” Lookee there. A message in a silly all-star car chase movie. They practically slipped it right past you.
Good times. I love this movie.