Back in the 1970s, when a self-driving car meant a brick on the throttle, people raced each other from coast to coast to protest national speed limits and to celebrate American freedom and also because it would be something fun to talk about. In 1981, they got a bunch of stars and the guy that started it all to make a movie about it called The Cannonball Run.
(Welcome back to Jalopnik Movie Club, where we take a look at cars in movies and movies about cars, and you write in with all of your hot takes. This week, we’re reviewing 1981’s The Cannonball Run, a movie about about Stockholm Syndrome, James Bond and, somewhat in the background, cars!)
The Cannonball Run is the 1981 movie written by legendary auto writer Brock Yates, loosely based on his own multiple runnings of the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. Everyone knows about those now, so I won’t waste time recapping them here. We’ll get to how it translated to film.
The Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit)-directed movie was extremely successful for its time, mostly thanks to the massive cast of stars they managed to get: Dean Martin, Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Chan and many others.
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The plot is a very light lift of the actual events that happened. It’s centered around Reynolds’ J.J. and his best friend, Dom DeLuise’s Victor, a.k.a. Captain Chaos, as they set out from New York to California to beat everyone else in “America’s illegal Grand Prix” for the fame and glory of winning.
The movie pulls specific references to Yates’ real experiences doing the cross-country journey, particularly his 1979 run which involved a team in an ambulance with transmission issues and some of the same locations the cars stopped at in the movie.
The cast opened the movie up to a slew of self-references and in-jokes for the audience about Reynolds’ role in Smokey And The Bandit and the Moore James Bond movies. Seeing these big-name actors making fun of themselves makes up most of the highlights of what is an otherwise light 95-minute romp.
Like Smokey And The Bandit or the original Ocean’s 11 starring the Rat Pack, The Cannonball Run is the sort of movie they just don’t make anymore, where the sale of tickets is based entirely on the star power making up the cast. All of the characterizations are loose if nonexistent, and it makes for a movie that’s just a vessel for what feels like a good time with friends that happen to be super charismatic big-name movie stars of the time. It’s easy to see the appeal, even if we don’t really have new movies like this in 2018.
Maybe the closest we get are the Marvel superhero movies, where stars with big followings are promoted through Hollywood to defeat vaguely evil recognizable pop culture characters as an excuse to see Chris Evans flex his muscles and Brie Larson kick Thanos’ ass, as an escape from the mundane hell-world of our daily lives. But even those have an air of seriousness that the whimsical Cannonball Run is too fun to bother with.
It’s a very ’70s film. Parts of it haven’t aged especially great, like the treatment of Fawcett, or the total lack of subtitles over Jackie Chan’s entire part, plus musical cues where the motivation behind the humor is extremely questionable, as it seems to be laughing at the Asian characters in the movie because they speak a different language and know how to do fancy kicks.
In response to negative reviews of the movie, even Burt Reynolds admitted later that the movie was a mistake, and that he “sold-out” to help his friend, director Hal Needham.
My main issue with the movie is that, well, there’s just nothing really spectacular about it. This was a real race, which at one point had nearly 50 different teams working to set records with all sorts of different cars and developing different strategies, and turned something with an inherent sense of excitement and adventure into a lame comedy that treads on star power alone. It could have been a lot better, is what I’m saying.
There are some cool cars, like the Lamborghini Countach, Ferrari 308 GTS, Aston Martin DB5, Pontiac Firebird police cars and the cool Subaru DL, but they don’t really get to do much to show off and the stunt work in the driving sequences is a major let down. The movie holds at one note, and it feels more like a group of friends with a Super 8 then it does a cohesive story.
The problem is none of the cars are the star of the show. Like with Smokey And The Bandit, the movie is very much centered around the charismatic Reynolds, but Smokey had the iconic Firebird and it did more with with it. There were better stunts and less distractions, and it makes The Cannonball Run seem overstuffed with cars and stars in comparison, but it doesn’t know what to do with them.
It’s sometimes called required watching for gearheads, but I wouldn’t go that far. To me it maybe qualifies as a decent background movie, if only for the chance to perk up when you hear the iconic music at the beginning and end. And today, you can see that the critical reception then and now doesn’t match up to how loved it seems to be.
It was still fun movie. Supposedly there are multiple projects currently in the works to make a modern version of The Cannonball Run, which I’m not sure I’m sold on. I guess I’ll wait to see who they cast.
That’s all from me, now let’s hear from those of you that emailed with your thoughts, opinions and hot takes about The Cannonball Run:
I love The Cannonball Run – especially because it should have been a total train wreck. (We covered it on Reels and Wheels here.)
Brock Yates, editor of Car and Driver, wasn’t exactly a screenwriter and Hal Needham (stunt driver and AMERICAN FREAKING HERO) wasn’t a highly technical director. The cast was just a bunch of Burt Reynolds’ pals who wanted to hang out and get drunk. The whole mess was shoveled in front of a camera and the result was pure lightning in a bottle. Both sequels proved (sadly) that if would never be that great again. The movie just plain worked. It helped that the stories were real, yet so outlandish that you didn’t want to believe they were real. Once you know about Brock Yates’ legendary participation in the real thing, it makes the movie even better.
Two other movies about the Cannonball race actually preceded this one – Cannonball (1976) and The Gumball Rally (1976). The weren’t bad, just not nearly as iconic, funny and lucky.
Also, was anybody else a little tripped out by the universe-bending paradox of Roger Moore playing a guy named “Roger Moore” who was really a guy named “Seymore” who had all of James Bonds’ gear at his disposal?
Its a good movie, entertaining, goofy, and even has a backstory to the whole anti 55mph race. I think it would have been a lot better if they added in a few more cool car scenes but the Countach with spandex wrapped twins was interesting enough. They got a little too goofy at times taking away from the racing standpoint of the movie but that is just part of what makes it good. It isn’t something to watch if you want to be on the edge of your seat and see them destroy 5 million of super cars, it is something you can watch with lighthearted friends maybe even family to enjoy a goofy and entertaining film.
In this movie we see the following: Drinking and driving, smoking and driving, and using an electronic device while driving.
Another period piece from a different era, The Cannonball Run is a silly comedy about a race across the continental United States. It’s filled with era jokes throughout including an imitation of Nixon and a reference from Burt Reynolds to Smoky and the Bandit. It showcases teams picking up beer, a rather large smattering of sexuality towards women and stereotypical characters. It’s definitely a 180 in terms of what hits the big screen today.
The teams entered in the race are all unique, which leads to an interesting interaction between them. At the start, the women take a very serious approach, the good ‘ol boys a laid back, and the Japanese team doesn’t even punch in. There’s James Bond, a mad proctologist, a beauty, and alter ego “Captain Chaos” to add even more variation to the contestants.
The vehicles themselves also mimic this drastic variation. Each showcasing a different way to shorten it’s race time. From A Harley Davidson Sportster to a GMC C-35 Full Size Pickup. Whether it be the Sheiks money, a jump over the train, an elaborate ruse of patient transport, turning off the lights at night, or using some other attribute where it be vehicular or human. The absurdity of this movie keeps the audience guessing as to which team will win as it only occasionally the positions of the vehicles. As such the film doesn’t play out as a race so much as a roll playing comedy fest in and around vehicles.
The Cannonball Run is one of the many films to simply veg out on and not invest a lot of stock into.
Movie: C, No Oscars are coming out of this one and that’s fine. It features some laughs and some stunts and does okay for a lighthearted comedy movie.
Car Movie: -B. It is a race where all the contestants no matter what they drive always manage to bunch up and run into one another. It never really plays out as a race unfortunately and yet perhaps that’s just part of the whole gag.
How I couldn’t help but empathize with Captain Chaos.
I wonder why exactly Brock Yates wrote in a character like Victor Prinzi aka Captain Chaos but including him makes me view the film a little more seriously. On one hand it’s a cross-country race with a star-studded comedic twist but on the other hand, it’s lowkey an almost heartwarming story of a man finding his best self.
Back then Victor’s condition was called multiple personality disorder but today it’s probably known in professional circles as a Dissociative identity disorder. After some research (googling stuff) although treatment methods are individualized, ultimately, one acceptable goal is to reintegrate that person in society with a newfound perspective on oneself, which is almost what we see here in 90 minutes.
JJ McClure, along with his band of racing rapscallions recognize that, while Captain Chaos is an excellent driver, overall, it’s not healthy for Victor (or at least that’s the way I see it.) Pamela Glover, better known as Farrah Fawcett, befriends Victor, appealing to his normal side, which, I think, is a turning point in Victor’s mental health. We finally hear his origin story. Pamela’s case of Stockholm syndrome is a different issue altogether. And although JJ is using Captain Chaos for his driving skill, Victor’s life is probably better off with him as a friend than alone.
It’s played off with a bunch of laughs at the end but out of frustration from JJ, a risky Captain Chaos is replaced with a more socially acceptable Captain USA. I’m still not certain if that’s any better than Captain Chaos but I like to think he’s closer to being his best self.
And that wraps it up for this week’s Jalopnik Movie Club review! Thank you to everyone who wrote in with their takes, which I encourage you all to do for next week!
Speaking of next week, we’ll be reviewing Mission: Impossible 2, so be sure to get it watched and collect your thoughts, and write in with your opinions and hot takes to justin at jalopnik dot com.
In the meantime, sound off below about the good and bad of The Cannonball Run, and all of its charismatic if questionable tomfoolery, and see you all next week!