An Ultimate Rabbit Guilty Pleasure: ‘The Cannonball Run’

The Cannonball Run poster

So sue me, I still enjoy watching “The Cannonball Run” after all these years. The critics eviscerated it upon its release, especially Roger Ebert who awarded this movie half a star out of four, but my enjoyment for it has only dampened so much. I was just a kid when I saw first watched it with my brother, and I had yet see “Smokey and the Bandit” which we can all agree is a better movie. Looking back, I dug Burt Reynolds’ ever so cool demeanor, Dom DeLuise’s over the top performance, the ever so beautiful Farrah Fawcett who makes you want to love trees as much as she does, Roger Moore gleefully spoofing his role as James Bond, and Jackie Chan kicking Peter Fonda’s butt among others. Hal Needham may have never directed a motion picture worthy of being compared to “Vertigo” or “Citizen Kane,” but he sure did know how to give audiences a fun time (this time around anyway).

recently got to revisit “The Cannonball Run” when New Beverly Cinema screened it as part of a tribute to the late Roger Moore. This offered me my first chance to see it on the big screen after seeing it on television time and time again, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity. After all this time, I still have a blast seeing the filmmakers have fun with the 20th Century Fox logo as a couple of cars keep crashing into those famous spotlights.

For those who have avoided “The Cannonball Run” because of the dreadful reviews, it is about a variety of different personalities who participate in a highly illegal cross-country race which takes them from Connecticut all the way to California. For these drivers, the speed limit of 55 miles per hour means nothing, and they have their own individual plans for reaching the finish line before everyone else. The most prominent of these drivers is J.J. McClure (Burt Reynolds) who is joined by his best friend Victor Prinzi (DeLuise) who at times breaks out into his alter ego of Captain Chaos when times get rough.

Watching “The Cannonball Run” today, I am reminded of what filmmakers used to get away with in a PG-rated movie. You have Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis driving their Chevrolet Malibu NASCAR Grand National race car with a pathetic paint job while having dozens of Budweiser Beer cans clearly visible in the back seat. When they are intercepted by the uptight antagonist Arthur J. Foyt (George Furth) at a road block, it’s astonishing they get busted for participating in the Cannonball instead of having an infinite supply of Budweiser on display, let alone open cans in their hands. Foyt is determined to stop the race, but drunk driving doesn’t appear to be as big a concern to him. Go figure.

Heck, most of the drivers we see here are as interested in getting hopelessly inebriated as they are in winning this illegal race. Jamie Blake (Dean Martin) and his partner Morris Fenderbaum (Sammy Davis Jr.) are unsure of who should be at the wheel as they are both sloshed to the point where they should get a designated driver like Richard Petty. J.J. McClure is flying a plane and becomes pissed upon realizing he and Victor are out of beer and ends up landing in the middle of a street near a convenience store where Victor can rush in to get a 6-pack. Seriously, the last 80’s movie I can remember its characters having too much alcohol was “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” and that also had a PG-rating.

The first time I saw Jackie Chan in anything was in “The Cannonball Run” where he played a version of himself as a talented race car driver who, along with Michael Hui, navigates a super high-tech Subaru across America. Seeing Chan beating up members of a motorcycle gang was awesome to a 10-year-old like myself, and it was hysterical watching him cover up the rips in his jeans after knocking two guys out. Chan also showed us the future of texting while driving as he watched the Marilyn Chambers porn classic “Behind the Green Door” while behind the wheel. I would like to think this movie predicted the future where drivers stopped paying much attention to what was on the road ahead of them, but I’m pretty sure few would be willing to give Needham and company the credit.

“The Cannonball Run” was also my introduction to Rick Aviles, an actor and comedian who would later become famous for doing the unthinkable in a 1990’s movie, killing Patrick Swayze in “Ghost.” We get a taste of his comedic acting here which wasn’t as present in other movies he appeared in, and he does a Richard Nixon impersonation which still has me in hysterics. What a shame Aviles’ life was cut short at the age of 42.

Burt Reynolds has gone on the record to say “The Cannonball Run” is not one of his favorite movies, and to be honest, he does look to be coasting on his natural charisma as J.J. McClure. Regardless, I still loved how he coasted on it here as it makes his job seem ever so easy. All he needs to do is give you a certain look, make a certain sound, or just twist his mustache in a certain direction to get your full attention. Now how cool would it be to go through life being so cool without putting too much effort into it? Like Rod Stewart said, some guys have all the luck.

It’s a shame Dom DeLuise is no longer with us. Whether he was in the best of movies or the worst of movies, he was such a delightful presence in them all. His character of Victor Prinzim has an upbeat attitude about himself even as J.J. tries to keep it under control, especially when Victor talks about “him.” The him is Captain Chaos, Victor’s alter ego who jumps into action when things get threatening or when he finds himself falling behind in the race. Watching DeLuise become Captain Chaos is a blast, and this is even though he saves the day one time too many near the finish line.

For me, Roger Moore was the James Bond I grew up on, and seeing him here shows what a great sense of humor he had about his tenure as 007. Moore never ever plays his role of Seymour Goldfarb, a Jewish heir to a family fortune pretending to be a movie star named Roger Moore, as if he is in on the joke. Seeing him keep his cool even as the police pursue his speeding silver Aston Martin is great fun, and you know Sean Connery and Daniel Craig would never be quick to do the same thing. George Lazenby maybe, but never Connery.

Watching Jamie Farr as the oil-rich Middle-Eastern sheikh Abdul ben Falafel serves as a reminder of how there is more to this actor than him playing Maxwell Klinger on “M*A*S*H.” Some may consider his performance to be an offensive caricature, but he is so wonderfully over the top here as he proclaims his driving is only rivaled by the lightning bolts from the heavens to where it is a waste of time to take what he does here seriously. Farr makes his character’s unchecked ego all the more palpable, and the scene where he essentially flips the bird to the cops is one to cheer for if you have ever been given a speeding ticket. And yes, Farr makes you believe this is a character who knows when you have had too much couscous.

Was there anything I saw in “The Cannonball Run” that I had not seen before when watching it at New Beverly Cinema? Yes, a few actually. The grotesque Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing (Jack Elam) announces himself to be a proctologist to where a certain finger on his hand becomes far more frightening to me now than ever before. Then again, I had no business knowing what a proctologist does when I was a pre-teen.

Also, Farrah Fawcett’s nipples are much more present as they poke prominently through her dress during the scene where she first catches the attention of Reynolds. Then again, there is an enormous amount of cleavage on display from start to finish, much of it courtesy of Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman who use their sex appeal to avoid the much-deserved speeding tickets which should automatically come with the purchase of a Lamborghini, any Lamborghini.

But after all these years, I still get won over with moments like when Fawcett bonds with DeLuise as he talks about the first appearance of Captain Chaos in his life, or when Reynolds tells Fawcett why he races cars. This might seem like a movie too shallow to contain moments like these, but they were pretty deep to me when I watched “The Cannonball Run” back in the 1980’s, and today they still are.

I don’t know, maybe my opinion of this movie would be different had I seen “Cannonball” or “The Gumball Rally” beforehand, both of which are said to be much better than “The Cannonball Run.” Well, fate had it that I would watch Needham’s 1981 comedy ahead of them, and I still enjoy watching it despite the numerous detractors it has. For those who think this is a prime example of lazy filmmaking, check out “Cannonball Run II” which is exactly that (or better yet, don’t bother).

I feel like I should apologize liking “The Cannonball Run” as much as I do, but I am sick and tired of apologizing for who I am. Besides, this movie remains a prime example of the things filmmakers could get away with in a PG-rated movie back in the 80’s. They wouldn’t get away with any of this today.

* * ½ out of * * * *

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