Cannonball! (1976) was the second of three movies all based on the same surreptitious cross-country auto race. The Gumball Rally, released that same summer, had a similar non-star cast and B-movie budget, but was easily the best of the three. The Cannonball Run (1981), an alleged comedy from that loathsome team of Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds, ironically did far better business than the other two pictures combined, spawning a sequel even more dire than the first. Cannonball! (and yes, there is an exclamation point in the title) actually isn't much better, but at least it's without the smug, self-satisfied crassness of Needham's film.
David Carradine stars as Coy "Cannonball" Buckman, a disgraced racer who took a manslaughter rap to save wacko friend Zippo (Archie Hahn) from hard jail time. Coy is determined to win the $100,000 prize in his souped-up red Trans-Am, even though it means breaking parole and virtually kidnapping girlfriend/parole officer Linda (Veronica Hamel, who apparently was in The Gumball Rally too, though her scenes may have been cut). Arch-rival/psycho Cade Redman (Bill McKinney), driving a black Dodge Charger, teams up with aspiring country star Perman Waters (Gerrit Graham) and his hillbilly stage mother (Judy Canova, in her last role). Meanwhile, California teens Jim (Robert Carradine) and Maryann (Belinda Balaski) join the race in Jim's parents' Corvette; philanderer Terry (Carl Gottlieb) flies his Chevy Blazer across the country hoping to fool race organizer Brad Phillips (Patrick Wright); three women in a van (Mary Woronov, Diane Lee Hart, and Glynn Rubin) use their sex appeal with highway patrolmen, etc.
As detailed in the concise documentary that accompanies Cannonball!, director/co-writer Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) had made the highly successful Death Race 2000 the year before, but rather than that film leading to other darkly comic assignments which were his forte, Bartel found himself instead typecast as an action-adventure director, something which he assuredly was not. Both David Carradine and Mary Woronov concede Bartel was "selling out" and unhappy all during filming. Bartel certainly has no feel for the material: it doesn't have the audacious bad taste of Death Race 2000 nor does it live up to the more conventional comic possibilities exploited so well in The Gumball Rally. Most of the picture is quite bland, and at times, especially in Bartel's onscreen role as an underworld kingpin, self-indulgent.
Ultimately, the movie can't decide what it wants to be, at various times opting for broad satire, low-brow racing excitement, subtle black humor, and overwrought melodrama.
Besides Bartel, the comedy is generally anemic, except for James Keach's hilariously snobby German racer, with much of Keach's dialogue reportedly ad-libbed on location. The movie is packed with familiar character players and producer/directors in bit parts. Dick Miller gets to chew a lot of scenery as Carradine's troubled older brother; Martin Scorsese, Allan Arkush, Roger Corman, Jonathan Kaplan, and co-writer Don Simpson are among the latter. Joe Dante is actually quite good as a nerdy car buff who helps Carradine out of a jam. Sylvester Stallone appears unbilled (probably owing to Rocky's impending release) as a Mafioso in a brief scene with Scorsese.
The film is more elaborate than Death Race 2000 (evidently Sir Run Run Shaw, of all people, kicked in some extra dough), but that's not saying much. Though the action takes place across the country, from the Santa Monica Pier to Manhattan's Lower West Side, nearly all of it was obviously shot in the scrub country around Los Angeles. A lavish 15-car pile-up was meant to be a comic high-point but instead it comes off as completely gratuitous. And as David Carradine points out, the graphic nature of the sequence is at odds with its intended humor.
Video & Audio
Near as this reviewer can recall, Cannonball! is among the very first titles from the New World catalog to be released in 16:9 anamorphic format, and it's a stunner, nearly flawless. (The film elements used for this transfer include a plug at the end for Deathsport.) Blue Underground's site lists the aspect ratio as 1.66:1 while the film's pressbook clearly states 1.85:1, but none of this really matters since most widescreen TVs will overscan the image to 1.77:1 full frame anyway. The audio options include new 5.1 Dolby Surround and Dolby Surround 2.0 mixes, along with the original mono -- a lot of effort for a film as minor as this but there are, alas, no optional subtitles.
As mentioned above, the DVD of Cannonball! includes another fine documentary, Kicks and Crashes, courtesy the folks at Blue Underground. Running ten minutes and in 16:9 format, the featurette traces the film's origins, David Carradine does a funny imitation of Roger Corman, who also appears, and Mary Woronov talks about Bartel and her thankless role.
Also included is a 16:9 trailer, three 30-second TV spots in 4:3 format, and an extensive poster & still gallery. The latter includes behind-the-scene photos, excerpts from the pressbook, jackets from earlier home video incarnations, and so forth.
Cannonball! is a watchable but uninspired action-comedy. As the trades used to say, it's mainly for "undiscriminating audiences" and insiders who will get a kick out of all the cameo and bit players. Had this been a standard, no-frills New Concorde release it would have been an easy pass but, as they often do, Blue Underground's affection for mediocrity is contagious, and bump this up a notch to "rent it."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.