Cannonball Run II (1984) – Directed by Hal Needham – Starring: Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jamie Farr, Shirley MacLaine, Marilu Henner, Frank Sinatra, Charles Nelson Reilly, Telly Savalas, Tony Danza, Mel Tillis, Catherine Bach, Susan Anton, Jackie Chan, Richard Kiel, Jack Elam, Tim Conway, Don Knotts, Alex Rocco, Abe Vigoda, Joe Thiesmann, and an orangutan.
The real “stars” of CANNONBALL RUN II aren’t Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, or Sammy Davis, Jr. It’s Alex Rocco and Abe Vigoda, who get an incredibly inordinate amount of screen time to fulfill their ridiculous sub-plot to kidnap the Sheik (Farr) in order to pay Telly Savalas $9 million to get Charles Nelson Reilly out of debt.
That, in a nutshell, is what CANNONBALL II gets completely and utterly wrong, and why the first movie works and the second movie doesn’t. There’s no great plot in either movie, of course, but the two films are about something, and it’s that difference of something that influences the two films in very different directions.
The Cannonball Run is about a love of cars and the rebellious freedom that comes with it and CANNONBALL II is about chasing money and this difference goes a long way in coloring the overall tone of each movie.
Neither of these films are cinematic masterpieces, of course, but the first Cannonball movie is funny, likable, and breezy car chase movie while the second film isn’t either funny or likable, and it’s traded its loves of cars for a love of jokes.
Perhaps the simple difference is that Brock Yates isn’t back as the screenwriter for CANNONBALL II. Yates is a car guy. He was exec editor editor of Car and Driver and a pit reporter for CBS’ NASCAR coverage in the 1980s. Most relevant to this discussion is that Yates didn’t just write The Cannonball Run, but created the actual event that the Cannonball movies are based on: the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.
According to the Never Wrong, Yates wanted Steve McQueen to play J.J. McClure in the original Cannonball film, but McQueen’s illness prevented this and the role went to Burt Reynolds, which turned a much straighter film into the Reynolds Car Comedy it became. Comedy that it is, a love of cars permeates Cannonball Run: there’s Adrienne Barbeau’s Countach, Roger Moore’s Aston Martin, Terry Bradshaw’s Donnie Allison-inspired semi-stock car, and Dean and Sammy’s Ferrari. J.J. and Victor have a significant discussion about which car will be their best option for the race after their souped-up Porsche gets wrecked.
Almost all of this is lost in the second movie. The Countach makes a brief appearance at the start of the film (with Barbeau and Tara Buckman replaced by Catherine Back and Susan Anton), but it breaks down, forcing the women to use their sexual wiles to con their way into another car. This becomes a running gag throughout the movie, as they keep promising “a weekend you’ll never forget” to one male sap after another. Roger Moore doesn’t come back for the sequel, and neither does the Aston Martin, but the Bondian gimmicks are given to Jackie Chan’s Mitsubishi. Chan is kicked out of the driver’s seat and into the back, and in case you missed the Bond reference, Bond villain Richard Kiel is the new driver. The semi-stock car is gone (as is Terry Bradshaw, replaced by Tony Danza) and instead we get a joke limousine with an orangutan pretending to drive. Dean and Sammy’s Ferrari is replaced by a Corvette (and not a particularly classic or attractive one), and the best car they can drag up for Frank Sinatra – FRANK SINATRA – to drive is a Dodge Charger. (And no, not the cool late-’60s-70s muscular Charger, but this pedestrian, lame-ass, early-80’s Charger.) J.J. and Victor are back in costume, but instead of the ambulance driver routine, they’re now a General and Private and their traveling companions aren’t the crazy Doctor (Elam) and their lovable patient (Farrah Fawcett, who’s sorely missed), but two actresses pretending to be nuns (MacLaine and Henner) who want to get to Broadway.
MacLaine and Henner play nuns because it’s apparently hilarious to see Reynolds and DeLuise fret about MacLaine’s effect on J.J., who proclaims his desire to “jump her bones.” This whole sub-plot (including a really weird make-out session between Reynolds and MacLaine in which you half-hope, half-fear that his toupee is going to come off) goes completely counter to the chaste pursuit of Farrah by J.J. in the first movie. There, J.J.’s focus was on winning the race, but here, he’s only interested in winning the million dollars and getting laid.
Heck, J.J. is almost a completely different character – in the first movie he runs a gargae/delivery service, but here he’s become a ridiculous stuntman who stands inside a metal cylinder that looks like a bomb and gets dropped from a plane and shot through a giant bullseye and into a net.
There’s way too much set-up, too. The darn race doesn’t even start until about 40 minutes into the movie and despite starting in California, it doesn’t get further east than Las Vegas until there’s about 10 minutes remaining.
There’s a whole series of absolutely groan-inducing gags that are included simply to replicate the successful gags in the first movie. It’s quite simply some of the very worst hack writing you’ll see this side of Batman and Robin.
The worst part of the movie, however, is the entire dumb sub-plot with cartoon gangsters. Charles Nelson Reilly plays an incompetent son of a head of a once-big NYC mafia family. He owes Telly Savalas $9 million, so he gets Rocco, Vigoda, and two other guys to kidnap the Sheik (to steal the race’s $1 million prize) and then hold him for ransom (to come up with the other $8 million). We then get way, way, way too many Wile E. Coyote-type schemes to stop the Shiek from Rocco and Vigoda, which completely detracts us from the race.
This is not to say CANNONBALL II is a completely unwatchable movie. By the very nature of the multitude of guest stars and the rapid-fire pace of joke scene after joke scene, the film may be terrible, but it’s not without a certain watchability. If you like cars, this film blows, but if you just want to watch a light comedy featuring a bunch of people who used to be famous, watching CANNONBALL II is better than watching a marathon of Hollywood Squares, and not just because it doesn’t have Whoopi Goldberg in it.
If nothing else, CANNONBALL II is an oddly historic movie – it’s not only the last “car comedy” movie that Reynolds does, but it’s the final movie appearances of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.