Movie Review: The Cannonball Run (1981)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from the Tisch Library at Tufts.

We were pretty down about Hal Needham’s passing. His movies are always lots of fun and I love his respect for and dedication to stuntpeople. I remembered that I’d never actually seen The Cannonball Run so that felt like an ok way to celebrate his career. The film tracks the events surrounding a cross-country road race that attracts all manner of speed demons and goofballs, all with their own ideas about how to evade the police as they speed down numerous interstate highways. Sexy lady friends (and lovers? Probably?) Marcie (Adrienne Barbeau) and Jill (Tara Buckman) use their looks to avoid speeding tickets, bickering racers JJ (Burt Reynolds) and Victor (Dom DeLuise) drive an ambulance complete with a phony doctor (Jack Elam), Seymour (Roger Moore) unleashes strange spy gadgets in the manner of James Bond, and sleazy pals Blake (Dean Martin) and Fenderbaum (Sammy Davis, Jr) disguise themselves as priests to fool any suspicious cops. A lot, and I mean A LOT of hijinks ensue as this huge group of famous people races to the finish.

This is a really very silly movie, like, Mel Brooks level of silly. Appearances from Dom DeLuise and George Furth certainly aid the comparison. As you may know, I’m kind of a Mel Brooks fanatic so I mean this as a high compliment. It’s got outdated jokes, ridiculous sight gags, more wacky characters than you can shake a stick at, and a fair amount of nonsensical activity, all of which I love! I spent most of the movie oscillating between who I wanted to win because I liked almost everyone, but ultimately rooted for the misandrist lady team who took advantage of lascivious cops. I gotta say, I was very taken in by Sammy Davis, Jr and Dean Martin, though, whose rude humor and old man DGAF-ery was oddly charming. DeLuise can be overbearing, but having Reynolds there to balance things out helped ground them as the core racing team. Most of all, THE STUNTS. It’s Hal Needham, I expect high-flying car action and unexpected levels of destruction and boy did I get it. There’s even a fantastic fight scene involving Jackie Chan! Because yes, Jackie Chan is in this movie!

Which brings me to some of the negative aspects of the film. While I appreciated its fairly diverse cast, some of the racial stereotyping is so antiquated it’s just jarring. Jackie Chan plays a Japanese racer who doesn’t speak English (but seems to be speaking Chinese some of the time) whose car has outlandish technology. I love Chan, and it’s awesome he got to show off his martial arts skills in the big fight scene, but the entire comedy of his character is a stereotype and it just doesn’t work. Jamie Farr’s role as a car-obsessed Arab sheik is similar, although his character is so ridiculous it worked a bit better because it didn’t really rely on stereotypes as much (at least not ones I know) but was more of a general caricature of a really rich foreigner. Of course, treatment of women isn’t much better, as Farrah Fawcett’s charcter is kidnapped and drugged by the supposed “good guys,” who are never even punished for it. But honestly, the whole movie (though inspired by a real guy) exists in this completely exaggerated parallel universe where nothing really makes sense and everything is goofy as hell, so it’s not like I was ruminating on the script’s exploration of race and gender. I was mostly just tickled pink by how much FUN I was having. Thanks, Hal Needham, I’ll never forget you.


Pair This Movie With: Of course my first thought was Death Race 2000, the absolute best road race movie. For other 70’s fast car flicks there’s Smokey and the Bandit (another Needham/Reynolds team-up) and Grand Theft Auto.

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