The Cannonball Run, 1981.
Directed by Hal Needham.
Starring Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Adrienne Barbeau, Jackie Chan, Peter Fonda, Jack Elam and Tara Buckman.
An illegal cross-country car race attracts an eclectic bunch of characters with their eyes on the prize, and they’ll do anything to get it.
For anybody growing up in the 1980s there were certain movies that could be considered a rite of passage to watch, especially when it came to comedies. It also helped that during that decade the TV schedules were pretty predictable and that on any given bank holiday you were guaranteed a) a James Bond film and b) a car chase movie starring Burt Reynolds, which meant either one of the Smokey & the Bandit escapades or The Cannonball Run.
Not a film that is heavy on plot, The Cannonball Run is very simple and that is probably the key to its enjoyment. Essentially it is about a car race across part of America whose contestants use all sorts of trickery and foul play to slow down their opponents, but in this race the contestants consist of cheeky con man J.J. McClure (Reynolds) and his dopey friend Victor (Dom DeLuise) who have stolen an ambulance to take part in the race, suave girdle business inheritor Seymour Goldfarb (Roger Moore) who, in a sort of meta twist, actually thinks he is Roger Moore (they couldn’t clear the rights to use the James Bond name and, according to Moore in the extra features, he didn’t want to upset Eon Productions by being disrespectful to the character as he was still playing Bond at the time), drunken gamblers Jamie Blake (Dean Martin) and Morris Fenderbaum (Sammy Davis, Jr.) who are dressed as Catholic priests and driving a Ferrari, sexy cat-suited vixens Jill (Tara Buckman) and Marcie (Adrienne Barbeau), and Japanese entrants Jackie Chan and Michael Sui, who drive a souped-up, hi-tech supercar, to name the main characters. There are others that join in along the way – like Peter Fonda doing his rebel biker thing – but it is this main bunch of misfits that the film focuses on, and with that amount of talent carrying the thin plot along anyone else trying to get in on the action would have their work cut out.
In all honesty, The Cannonball Run isn’t exactly what you would call a great movie and most of the fun comes out of the sense of nostalgia for it, meaning that if you have never seen it before then you may wonder why everybody half a generation older than you likes it so much. With Roger Moore playing off of his image at the height of his James Bond fame, Burt Reynolds not quite being the caricature he would become later in the decade and Jackie Chan’s almost slapstick martial arts feeling quite fresh, the film does capture a moment in time when comedies didn’t have to be gross to get laughs (although Burt Reynold’s comically racist jibe at Sammy Davis, Jr. wouldn’t be entertained in a movie script these days) and the car stunts were real. But despite Moore and Reynolds being charismatic and on top of their game it is the old pros Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. who get the best lines and seem to be having a total blast; Martin especially plays up to his reputation as a bit of a drinker (although Roger Moore refutes this in the extra features and says that Martin was on painkillers at the time) and his subtle character quirks – like briefly touching Dom DeLuise’s arse while he has his head under the bonnet of his ambulance – make him the most fun. All in all, it’s an entertaining blast of harmless comedy that holds a certain charm if you remember it from when you were young. However, Fast & Furious it ain’t so don’t go expecting anything more than silly (but still funny) humour and some cool looking cars.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★