The Cannonball Run

Cross-country sociopaths
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1981
Director: 
Hal Needham
Starring: 
Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Adrienne Barbeau
The Setup: 
Bunch of sociopaths cross the country in a ludicrous race.
Discussion: 

My regular movie buddy really wanted to watch this, so I saved it for him by watching The Cannonball Run II a while back, which also had the added attraction of showcasing this hot sleazoid cowboy [who turns out to be Hal Needham, director of both films]. Problem is, after suffering through part II, I had zero interest in seeing part the first. But my friend had the disc with him and we ended up watching it, and I’m happy to say it was much more enjoyable than its sequel.

The two films begin in almost the same way, with a fancy car speeding past a police car, then getting behind the police and passing them again. One can immediately tell that the sense of speed we get is the result of sped-up footage from the foliage in the foreground that is shaking wildly. Is there a massive earthquake going on?

We then have to introduce our massive list of characters. First is Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise as a teams who are planning on driving an ambulance across the country because the ambulance lights will give them an excuse to speed. One of the disappointments of my life is that upon revisiting his works, Burt is NOT as hot as I considered him when I was 15, although he does sort of come through, despite the toupee, in this movie. We then meet Roger Moore as an actor who uses the stage name Roger Moore. It’s SO meta. He spoofs his James Bond role [and totally made me want to watch some Roger Moore Bond movies, which I was completely uninterested in] with a Bond-like music cue every time he appears on screen. There’s also Adrienne Barbeau as one half of a team of women in shiny skin-tight pantsuits whose plan is to flash a little skin to any officer who pulls them over and thus avoid the law. There’s Dean Martin [obviously DRUNK off his ASS Dean Martin] and Sammy Davis Jr. as two more racers. Then there’s some uptight politician who rails against automobiles, who hooks up with vacuous Farrah Fawcett as a reporter who just loves trees and all things natural. She says she loves trees because it’s so nice to lay under them on a moonlit night, with the wind rustling through the leaves, and blow your brains out. At first I thought she was saying this because she’s really smart and she’s toying with guys coming on to her before kissing them off, but the rest of her behavior throughout the movie does not support this. No, she's just really vapid and weird. Oh, and there's’also Jamie Farr as a stereotypic sheik, and Bianca Jagger appears briefly as an Arabian Princess. It's very convincing.

It soon becomes apparent that a lot of these people are utter sociopaths, with Burt being the leader of the pack. When de does things like land a plane in the middle of a town intersection in order to buy some beer or ram his speedboat into a small cruise ship, there is no thought given to all the people he could kill or maim, it’s all presented as just how very wacky and devil-may-care he is. The same holds for the other characters, who do things like jump their car into a hotel pool because they’re so drunk. People just don’t happen to get injured in these scenes, and the movie shows no indication that the could have.

So it’s the night before the big race, and everyone is at this hotel which has a big sign welcoming the “cannonballers.” Now, neither this sign nor the large degree of preparation and dissemination of information about the whereabouts of the race was enough to tip off the police that it is happening. Everyone is hanging out at the hotel bar, and that’s where Burt meets Farrah, who showed up for the proceedings in a sheer pink thing that deftly showcases her nipples. We also have Dean Martin admire DeLuise as Burt’s secret weapon: “It’s the blimp! When he puts on the suit! The blimp!” All of this is pretty amazing when you see that “the blimp” is nowhere near as chunky as the many obese people we see around nowadays. While all this is going on we hear some song that keeps saying “Let’s find a little love” or some shit…kinda good in a 70s way that makes you say “People LISTENED to this?”

Now let’s stop for a moment to consider WHAT is going on between Dom DeLuise and Burt Reynolds. My friend was quite sure that DeLuise’s character here is explicitly to be understood as gay [in the sequel they have him pair off with poor Marilu Henner, who has to pretend to be attracted to him], and they are always making jokes that poke fun at the idea that people will think they’re gay. For example, DeLuise is holding Reynolds’ hand, pats it and says “We’re very close.” If one knew nothing else—i.e. that Reynolds and DeLuise were good friends off-set and appeared in many movies together—it would seem that DeLuise is supposed to be gay and hanging around with THE massive hunk of the 70s, whom he is probably in love with. And THE massive hunk of the 70s is hanging out with this hangdog, submissive, overweight Italian… I don’t know, I just say it brings up some questions.

I should also mention that this film is AWASH in the kind of leering 70s sleaze that TOTALLY formed my attraction to horny 70s-type guys in macho wear and with mustaches. Of course, part of my very definition of these hot guys is that they are attracted to women, so you can imagine where that leaves me… but that’s for therapy. Anyway, there is plenty of 70s sleaze on hand here, with tons of women pouring into and out of super-tight clothes, lots of troopers with mustaches, beer-guzzlin’ horny dudes in cowboy boots… stuff like that. The long pan across the crowd at the send-off of the cannonballers is a virtual panorama d’moustache. Oh, and there’s the name… so, are we to understand that these folks ball with cannons? Is THAT the take-away?

Anyway, so the beginning of the race starts, and they’re off. Now, in order to avoid a mass stampede out of the gate, they send cars off about five minutes apart, each of them punching a card that they will re-punch at the end of the race, meaning that the judges will look at who got the best time, and it doesn’t matter who arrives at the finish line first. And it also, one would guess, involves a fairly long tabulation process. I mention all of this because all of these rules are utterly thrown out at the end, where we see a crowd of people running to beat each other and be the first to punch the card.

Not long after the race starts Burt and co. pass a crash with the anti-car crusader and Farrah. They pick-up Farrah, and leave the crusader. She keeps complaining about being kidnapped and held against her will, but no one listens to her. Now get this: at one point the Japanese racers [including Chinese Jackie Chan] pop in a porn tape, which is “Behind the Green Door,” described in this movie as the story of a woman who is kidnapped and held against her will, having sex with multiple guys, until she finally discovers that she loves it. When Burt asks Farrah what she thought would happen to her at first, she says she thought she would be “gangbanged.” In this way the movie suggests a lot of sexual content that isn’t actually there, and suggests a lot of sexual content so dirty it COULDN’T be there. Anyway, to Farrah’s thought that she might be gangbanged, Burt responds: “We’re racers, not rapists.”

From then on it’s all wacky hijinx as they all cross the country. One notable element is some pair on a motorcycle we are supposed to believe is so off-balance that they end up doing a wheelie across the country, which caused my friend to have all sorts of junior high memories of how at a certain age this seemed like THE coolest thing that could ever happen. “I mean I remember when a cross-country wheelie was SO the zeitgeist!” he said. And I remember, too. Oh dear. Somehow the words “trapper keeper” are the next thing that springs to mind.

Somewhere in here Burt calls Sammy the “chocolate monk,” and Barbeau and company say to someone “You’re SO maCHO!” Anyway, we get to the end of the race, and Burt—our hero—sends DeLuise ahead with the ticket, then plainly cheats in a VERY unsportsmanlike way when he trips everyone else. This is our hero? He’s scum! Anyway, DeLuise gets distracted and they don’t win. Me and my friend thought that Barbeau and company end up winning, but the fact is the movie diverts from it at the end and you can never really be sure. It doesn’t seem that anyone who was in the race cares—it was all just an excuse for some cross-country drunken driving and wanton destruction! Alllriggghhhht!

This was one of the first movies that included outtakes at the end of the movie, and both me and my friend remembered when this was “SO the zeitgeist” to have outtakes! It was IMPOSSIBLY COOL to have these outtakes! These messed-up scenes lend to the impression you’ve had all along: that a lot of this movie was improvised, and that this is sort of an Ocean’s Eleven-type excuse for movie stars to have a big party, and we can be allowed the privilege of paying money to watch the result. Oh by the way, the movie begins and ends with that little high-pitched giggle of Burt’s that, if you start to review his films, grows annoying in proportion to how utterly adorable he seems to think it is.

Anyway, it was a lot more fun than I remembered, even if it doesn’t make one lick of narrative sense and is not something you’ll remember for more than ten minutes. But it’s fun. Definitely recommended for times when you’re watching with friends, especially those who might remember it from seeing it 45 times back in the day [although I saw it 45 times back in the day and didn’t recall a single thing about it]. I would steer clear of the sequel unless you absolutely love this and are willing to sit through a considerably paler imitation / reconstruction.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, with friends and booze, though you, me, and everyone could live without it.

RELATED FILMS:
THE CANNONBALL RUN II is the same movie with an ever lower-level cast.
MEGAFORCE is another glittering gem in the bad movie firmament directed by noted auteur Hal Needham.