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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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Rio Bravo’

Rio Bravo movie poster

I have a confession to make; for years I had never seen a John Wayne western before. I was certainly aware of who he was and of how he is seen as an American hero to many. There is an airport in Orange County named after him, and it houses an enormous statue of him in his western gear that towers over all those taking a flight out of there. Wayne is as conservative as an actor can get in Hollywood, and there are certain people I know personally who don’t want to watch his movies because of that. But come one, we’re here to watch a movie, not debate politics! If I can sit through a Chuck Norris movie, there’s no reason why I can’t see a John Wayne movie.

Rio Bravo” was directed by Howard Hawks and it is widely regarded as one of the greatest westerns ever made. It was made by Hawks and Wayne as a “right wing response” to “High Noon” in which Gary Cooper played a sheriff who urged the townspeople to join him in defending the town they live in. In “Rio Bravo” Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, a man who has no time at for amateurs and will deal only with professionals who know what they are doing. That should give you a good idea of how pissed off Wayne was at Cooper.

The plot revolves around Chance guarding a prisoner named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) who murdered another man at a bar for no good reason. Working with Chance are an old cripple named Stumpy (Walter Brennan) who is always complaining about something, the town drunk Dude (Dean Martin) who spends the movie sobering up, and the new kid in town Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) who is quick on the draw. They are waiting for the marshal to arrive to take Burdette away, but his brother Nathan (John Russell) will not rest until he is freed. Nothing beats brotherly love when you want to keep your sibling from being someone’s best friend, in a manner of speaking, behind bars.

“Rio Bravo” is essentially a big buildup to a final a violent confrontation between the Sheriff and Nathan where bullets fly in all directions. We see these characters going about their normal lives and the Sheriff starting up a subtle romance with the new woman in town, Feathers (Angie Dickinson). Most action movies today would demand filmmakers cut out the character developments and simply go right to the action. It is rare to see a movie like “Rio Bravo” made today as filmmaking gets more faster paced to where we keep losing the art of subtlety.

I see why Wayne was such an incredibly strong presence in movies. He handles the dialogue well, but his best moments come when he doesn’t say a word. There is a moment where he glares at someone he doesn’t recognize as friendly, and he keeps staring at him until the nameless man walks away. Like Chance, Wayne had a face with a lot of history written all over it, and few others could pull off a scene like that so effectively.

You could tell that, like his characters, Wayne had been through a lot in life, and this added immeasurably to the “don’t mess with me” attitude he exhibited onscreen. He was never some pretty boy actor trying to get the ladies, but a seemingly down to earth guy doing his part to serve and protect others.

The other actor who impressed me here was Dean Martin who played Dude, the once famous gunslinger who has spent way too much time drinking to ease a broken heart. Maybe it’s because I have this view of Martin being a member of the Rat Pack to where I thought it completely overshadowed him as an actor. I figured he was more of a star than an actor, but his performance here proved me wrong. Martin takes his character from what seems like an eternally drunk state to a world of sobriety he struggles to keep up with. It’s a battle he can never fully win, but he tries to stay on the right track and Martin makes you root for him throughout.

I can also see why Ricky Nelson was cast here. A big rock star at the time, he was probably cast to help this movie appeal more to women who were crazy about him at the time. Nelson may never have been a truly great actor, but he is very good here as the new kid out to help the Sheriff in times of trouble. Nelson plays it cool here, maybe too cool at times, but you believe he is quick on the trigger.

But the big scene stealer here is Walter Brennan who plays Stumpy. All Stumpy can do is guard the jail with his shotgun and from behind closed doors, and he can be seriously trigger happy if you don’t let him know you’re right outside those jail doors. Every other line he said throughout the movie had the audience I saw it with at New Beverly Cinema in hysterics. The moment where he does that quick impression of Chance had me laughing my ass off.

This is also the first movie I have ever seen directed by Howard Hawks. He shoots with an economy of style and doesn’t overburden “Rio Bravo” with too much style and overlong shots a lot of show-off directors tend to employ. His focus here is on the characters and how they interact with one another. This makes the action more exciting as we come to care about these characters to where we don’t want them to get hurt.

Director John Carpenter pointed out how one of Hawks’ strongest attributes as a filmmaker is his inclusion of strong women. The example of that in Rio Bravo is in the form of Angie Dickinson’s character of Feathers who proves to be the only person in the entire movie who can tame Chance. You never doubt Feathers to be an independent woman who can get by on her own terms. She’s tough, and yet Dickinson manages to bring some vulnerability to Feathers where she doesn’t always appear trustworthy.

The scenes Dickinson has with Wayne are strong, and she succeeds in bringing out his vulnerabilities to the point where he can’t help but appear a little goofy. This is all despite the fact that Wayne was 51 and Dickinson was 26 when they made this movie. It turns out Wayne was very nervous about the love scenes in regards to the age difference. Then again, I don’t think I would have noticed their age difference unless someone pointed it out to me.

“Rio Bravo” is filled with many memorable moments not easily forgotten. The moment where Dude takes out a shooter in a bar is a brilliant one you never see coming. The shootouts are still exciting as hell, especially when good use is made of a flower pot being hurled through a window.

One of my favorite moments comes when the men come in harmony together as they sing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” It reminded me of one of my favorite moments from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” when Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw sang “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” I love those moments in films when people find a way to come together despite whatever differences keep them apart.

I found “Rio Bravo” to be an excellent western, and it’s no surprise to me that it is one of the most influential westerns ever made. It certainly holds a strong place in the cinematic history of westerns, and it endures to this very day. Of course, Hollywood in its infinite wisdom will probably end up remaking it after they have pillaged all the horror franchises they can. That’ll be the day!

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.