Back in the summer of 1980, there was a lot of buzz about three new summer comedies. The Blues Brothers was an orgy of great music and wildly over-the-top stunts, yet for some reason it seem to play only inadequate second-rate theaters (I first saw it in a shoebox-sized mall cinema). Airplane! was hailed by many as the funniest movie ever made, and finding mainstream success.
And then there was this little picture called Used Cars. Those that saw it seemed to love it, but it disappeared too quickly to find a real audience. Looking at it 34 years on, it's easy to see why those lucky few who saw it when it was new embraced it so, though today this deeply cynical comedy often seems forced and rather shallow, though there is much to like. Kurt Russell stars, further shedding his wholesome Disney image. Indeed, Used Cars plays like the kids from Medfield College, the fictitious university featured in three Russell-Disney films, disenchanted with the real world, turned into unscrupulous charlatans.
Twilight Time's Blu-ray offers a fine presentation of the film with numerous good extra features.
The film's tone is encapsulated in the pre-title sequence, where used car salesman Rudy Russo (Russell) resets one junker's odometer, fast approaching 100,000 miles, back to around 30,000 so he can advertise it as a "low mileage" bargain. He works for elderly Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) at the New Deal used car lot, located along a busy stretch of Phoenix highway directly opposite the brighter and more prosperous dealership owned by Luke's brother, Roy (also Warden).
Roy is anxious to obtain the New Deal lot as insurance against the proposed demolition of his own lot to make way for a freeway ramp. He hires an ex-demolition derby driver named Mickey (Michael Talbott) who, posing as a New Deal customer, takes Luke on a wild test drive spurring Luke into having a fatal heart attack.
But Rudy and fellow salesman Jeff (Gerrit Graham, The Phantom of the Paradise), along with mechanic Jim (Frank McRae), secretly bury Luke and his beloved Edsel behind the dealership, claiming Luke didn't succumb but rather simply left town on a vacation to Miami. Desperate to keep New Deal afloat while Rudy raises cash to buy himself a State Senate seat, he conspires with tech-savvy Eddie (Michael McKean) and Freddie (David L. Lander, "Lennie & Squiggy" on TV's Laverne & Shirley), illegally tap into the video feed of a football game with a commercial for the used car lot. During the live broadcast the female model accidentally rips her dress off on the car's hood ornament, exposing her breasts, and the next day the lot is flooded with customers.
Battling Roy, Rudy opts for more increasingly outrageous schemes to sell cars just as Luke's long-estranged adult daughter, Barbara Jane (Deborah Harmon, very appealing) shows up looking for her father.
Used Cars is a gleefully nasty, raunchy and often funny but ultimately a superficial satire of American business practices, with Rudy and his bunch willing to do anything and everything to move worthless automobiles. The lengths they'll go to sell their barely-drivable cars is sometimes hilariously distasteful. My favorite scene has the lot mascot, a Beagle patterned after Green Acres' Arnold the Pig, pretending to have been run over during a test drive, forcing the prospective customer into buy the vehicle out of profound guilt.
Another highlight occurs late in the film, when Barbara Jane is put on trial for claiming in another pirated TV commercial that New Deal has "a mile's" worth of cars on its lot. She's under oath, but Rudy unhesitatingly encourages her to lie, lie, LIE as if it were the perfectly natural thing to do while under oath.
Director and co-writer (with Bob Gale) Robert Zemeckis, as with all his comedies, makes no attempt at subtlety. Everything is big and broad and loud, though in the case of Used Cars this approach for the most part works. The picture eventually becomes repetitious, overbearing, and wearying, and its feel-good climax seems forced. The film also never adequately, believably resolves Rudy and Barbara Jane's dilemma: that he's lied outrageously about her father's whereabouts even as they fall in love. How can she forgive him so easily?
The cast helps. Russell and bug-eyed Graham are very good, while it's fun to see veteran character actor Jack Warden having fun in not one but two broad roles. Zemeckis crams the film with both young and older players in synch with the material: Woodrow Parfrey is hilarious as a nervous driver's education instructor, Dick Miller turns up long enough to do an amusing double-take, and Dub Taylor and Al Lewis enhance clichéd parts. Wendie Jo Sperber and Marc McClure, both in Zemeckis's amusing I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) turn up late as driving students, but where's Eddie Deezen?
Video & Audio
Used Cars was made during a period of exceptionally ugly lab work and theatrical prints, some of which rears its head here. The titles are overly grainy, as are scattered shots throughout the picture, and one is completely out-of-focus as well. The titles suspiciously look wrong, like Universal's botched and video-supered Frenzy title cards. Mostly though Used Cars looks fine. Both the original mono and a subdued 5.1 remix are offered in DTS-HD Master Audio are offered, along with optional English subtitles. This release is limited to 3,000 units.
Supplements include a lively audio commentary track featuring Russell, Zemeckis, and Gale; an isolated film score track; and alternate, unused score track; a gag and outtakes reel; radio interviews and spots as well as a trailer.
Not as good as its cult status reputation would suggest but still offering plenty of laughs, Used Cars is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.