The Cannonball Run (1981)

Director: Hal Needham

Starring: Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dom Deluise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Jackie Chan, Jamie Farr

Written by: Brock Yates

Running Time: 95 mins

Original UK Cert: A

Original US Release: 19th June 1981

People often ask me what my favourite film is (which is M*A*S*H) but they also ask me what kind of movies I like. It’s an even harder one to say. I like everything! I guess if it entertains me, or makes me emote or takes me away to another place then it’s a good film. Most reviewers have their favourite genres or directors; some are snobby and only like art house, others like fantasy and sci-fi. I genuinely like everything. Take, for example, The Cannonball Run. On any other day, this would be described as rubbish, which it is. There’s something about this film that touches me. Not in an emotional way, but if I have had a bad day, or feeling particularly blue, it does the job of lightening my mood. If it’s able to do that, then, to me, it’s a good film.

The plot is almost non-existent. A coast-to-coast, illegal road race, in which the fastest time to the finish line wins. The contestants, a ragbag bunch of oddballs, have to break the 55 mph speed limits across the States, while avoiding the police. Think Wacky Races with real cars and no Mutley!

And that’s it. What makes it even more interesting from the point of the viewer, is that the film makers don’t really care who wins. There is no triumphant celebration, no big spectacular ending, it just finishes with the cast downing champagne and laughing. Laughing is a big thing in this film. It’s like director Hal Needham has collected a group of unlikely stars by telling them that they will get to drive around America and have a great time doing it, while getting paid. It doesn’t seem to matter that the audience might not like it, they are all having a blast.

Needham, a former stunt man, made a career out of these kind of movies, in which the destruction of motor vehicles and the cast goofing around constitutes as entertainment. It’s not high brow, it’s not intellectually challenging, it’s just mindless entertainment. Sometimes it works (Smokey And The Bandit 1 and 2, Hooper, The Cannonball Run), sometimes it doesn’t (Stoker Ace, The Cannonball Run II) but in his short career behind the lens, he made more money than most directors from his film because it tapped into a time when the audiences just wanted to be entertained.

It also helped that his leading man was also one of the biggest movies stars around. Constantly battling for the top spot with his buddy, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds made a career out of disposable comedies. Playing on the character of an egotist with a heart, with his trademark moustache and distinctive laugh, he was the screen’s good ole boy, the father to the Dukes of Hazzard, if you will. Always in a fast car with a quip or two, followed by some form of destruction, the ironic thing about The Cannonball Run is that he doesn’t drive in it. What? A Hal Needham/Burt Reynolds collaboration where Burt doesn’t drive??? Absolutely true. He flies a plane at the beginning and drive a speed boat but never once gets behind the wheel.

The driving belongs to his off-screen and sometimes on-screen buddy, comedian Dom DeLuise. Normally this side of annoying, here he manages to be, well, likeable, as Reynold’s mechanic and driver with a secret identity…HIM! A superhero called Captain Chaos. It’s a bizarre thing to see but, strangely, in this film, it works.

Also along for the ride is Roger Moore, playing a man who thinks he’s Roger Moore? Made at the height of his James Bond reign, it is a brilliant piece of self mockery, driving an Aston Martin DB5 and with a different female (dressed in evening wear) by his side, it’s Moore at his silliest. Then there’s Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr as a pair of whisky drinking, womanising drivers pretending to be priests in order to avoid the police. Again, Martin is in massive self mocking mood but having his Rat Pack friend with him, the pair get some of the funniest lines.

Then there’s Jackie Chan. Having only made one film for the American market before (The Big Brawl), this was the film that got his American break. Spending most of the time in a Japanese Supercar that has all mod cons, he is allowed one solo fight sequence against Peter Fonda’s biker gang. Brief enough for him to return to America later to become a huge star. Incidentally, Chan was inspired by Needham’s blooper reels shown at the end of his films, that Chan did the same the same for his own.

Finally, there’s Farrah Fawcett. Having left Charlie’s Angels and divorcing Lee Mayors, her movie career was going nowhere. She did manage to re-invent herself as an actress with Extremities and the TV movie The Burning Bed but here she is at her sweetest and sexiest, playing the tree-loving, Pamela, who gets kidnapped by Reynolds to be a patient in his ambulance (the mode of transport for the race).

This isn’t high art. Let’s face it, this isn’t even low art. This is just a sit down, grab a beer, a handful of snacks and just let the whole thing pass over you. It’s not the funniest film you’ll ever see, it’s not even the most exciting. It’s just fun, pure and simple and sometimes, that’s all you need in this world.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Jeff says:

    is that Anthony Edwards sitting at the bar listening to Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr then spits his drink? I don’t see his name anywhere in credits but it does look like him and he is about the right age.

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