The first out of the gate was Cannonball (1976), which director and co-writer Paul Bartel made for Roger Corman's New World Pictures. It was partly intended as a follow-up to their Death Race 2000 (1975) but Bartel, hardly a car racing enthusiast, did it for the money and his lack of enthusiasm shows. Four years later came The Cannonball Run (1981), a broad, all-star comedy headlined by Burt Reynolds and directed by frequent collaborator Hal Needham. Despite poor reviews it was a big success, earning $72 million and prompting a much worse sequel.
By far the best of three films, however, was The Gumball Rally (1976), in theaters less than two months after Cannonball, and a good five years before Cannonball Run. Like Needham, Gumball Rally director and co-writer Charles "Chuck" Bail was a veteran actor-stuntman with a career stretching back to late 1950s TV Westerns. (Bail memorably more or less played himself in Richard Rush's great The Stunt Man, teaching the main character the trade.) Cannonball Run "borrows" many of its ideas from Gumball, but the approach is entirely different. Where Cannonball Run is a vehicle for its big stars, Bail is much more interested in the vehicles. There are some slap-sticky moments of broad comedy, but mostly Gumball is about the cars, the atmosphere, and the spirit of the race. It's less concerned with plot and character, the latter being broad caricatures that complement the cars and there are hardly any scenes where cars aren't in the shot. Top-billed Michael Sarrazin probably says less than 200 words in the whole picture. Cannonball Run pleased undemanding general audiences, while car enthusiasts adored Gumball.
The unique qualities of Gumball Rally are more obvious in Warner's new Blu-ray, which brings out the film's sometimes exquisite cinematography well.
Bored candy company CEO Michael Bannon (Sarrazin) spreads the code word "gumball" to fellow car enthusiasts, announcing the secret cross-country race. After a brief, irreverent dinner during which the rules are explained ("There are no rules!") the disparate racers gather in a top-secret garage in Lower Manhattan.
Besides Bannon and his friend, university professor Samuel Graves (Nicholas Pryor), together driving an AC Cobra, the other participants include: Steve Smith (Tim McIntire), Bannon's longtime rival (driving a Ferrari Daytona), who has hired a ringer, professional racer Franco Bertollini (Raúl Juliá), an inveterate ladies man; Ace "Mr. Guts" Preston (John Durren), aboard a Camaro Z-28 with garrulous good ol' boy mechanic Gibson (Gary Busey); female team Jane and Alice (Joanne Nail and Susan Flannery), driving a Porsche 911; retirees Barney Donahue (J. Pat O'Malley) and Andy McAllister (Vaughn Taylor), aboard a classic Mercedes-Benz 300 SL; Kandinsky (Steven Keats) and Avila (Eddy Donno), driving a Dodge Polara police car with decals for all the states they'll be travelling through; and Lapchik, the Mad Hungarian (Harvey Jason), riding a Kawasaki KH400 motorcycle. A few others don't get very far, while one of the mechanics, Jose (Lazaro Perez), eager to join the race, becomes a last-minute entry transporting a rich man's Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow to Los Angeles, and Jose virtually kidnaps his girlfriend, Angie (Tricia O'Neil) to join in the fun.
One weakness of the film is in giving these merrymakers a weak nemesis in determined, exasperated police Lt. Roscoe (Normann Burton) of the LAPD. Burton specialized playing apoplectic cops and the like (he was CIA agent Felix Leiter in Diamonds Are Forever) and while he serves virtually the same function Jackie Gleason would have in Smokey and the Bandit the following year, and Ernest Borgnine in Convoy the year after that, Burton is neither funny nor memorable as those actors were, anymore than Burton was as James Bond's longtime ally.
The picture has its share of impressive stunts and broad slapstick, particularly the almost silent movie antics of Lapchik, who can't catch a break, but the real charms of The Gumball Rally mostly lay elsewhere. The movie is fetishistic about cars not like Steve McQueen's boring Le Mans, but rather as expressions of freedom not dissimilar to scenes one sees in biker movies. Instead of Hell's Angels types, however, these are ordinary people who dote over their automobiles (and motorcycles and vans) and want nothing more than a good time.
Gumball's budget plays a role in its success. Financed by First Artists - a partnership between Warner Bros. (usually) and jointly owned by Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier, and later Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen - Gumball had a budget significantly larger than Cannonball but much smaller than Cannonball Run. It was just enough money to give it an A-picture sheen but not enough to hide the fact that locations were limited to New York City, the Los Angeles area, and Arizona, the latter very unconvincingly standing in for eastern and Midwest states.
But the New York scenes are hugely atmospheric and impressive, the racers barreling down mostly deserted Lower Manhattan, through Times Square (real tourists are bemused by the sight of the speeding cars) and through the Lincoln Tunnel. Some of the Los Angeles racing scenes are technically as good, though more familiar.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision The Gumball Rally offers excellent color and sharpness, looking almost like a brand-new film. The 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio is also impressively strong. English subtitles are offered.
No extras save for a trailer, just like the earlier DVD version.
Even if you're not a car buff The Gumball Rally has a relaxed sense of fun that makes for unexpectedly charmed and beguiling multiple viewings. Highly Recommended.