In The Cannonball Run, Burt Reynolds and a cast of a dozen celebrities wreak havoc from sea to shining sea, while director Hal Needham gives them free reign to do what they want with the thin script, leaving the film dependent entirely on the actors’ personalities and the destruction they leave behind. While it holds up to no serious form of critical scrutiny whatsoever, the cast is totally in sync with the film’s deliberately absurd and breezy tone. This Blu-Ray is disappointingly soft and shows signs of mild DNR, while its 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is decent; its only extra is a commentary from its director and producer.
The Cannonball Run (1981)
Studio: 20th Century Fox and Golden Harvest (distributed by HBO Home Entertainment)
Length: 98 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Languages: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Film Release Date: June 19, 1981
Disc Release Date: November 8, 2011
Review Date: November 7, 2011
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Burt Reynolds was riding high on the success of Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, Starting Over, and was a fixture of gossip columns thanks to his widely publicized romances with Sally Field and his future wife, WKRP in Cincinnati co-star Loni Anderson. It seemed that he could sell just about any movie in which he appeared. That seems to be a good chunk of the reason that, despite critics’ best efforts to warn them, audiences flocked to this film; it grossed it grossed over $72 million, ranking sixth place for the year. Undoubtedly, another reason for the film’s success is its celebrity-drenched cast. However, the film’s success couldn’t possibly have hinged on its complex plot, dramatic tension, and strong characterization, because there isn’t much of any of those.
There is a skeleton of a plot to try to justify the action: several teams of people are competing in a cross-country race from a seedy motel in Connecticut to a pier in Los Angeles, and they will do anything to win it. The film focuses more on the participants; first, there’s J.J. McClure (Reynolds) and his best friend Victor Prinzim (Dom DeLuise) in a souped-up ambulance; along the way they come across Pamela Glover (Farrah Fawcett), an environmentalist whom they bring with them, though she was supposed to gather evidence on behalf of A.J. Foyt, (George Furth), an overzealous government regulator who wants to go after them. To create the illusion that they’re actually paramedics, they have a doctor (Jack Elam), with credentials that are every as good as any other quack. Then there’s Jamie Blake (Dean Martin) and his teammate Morris Fenderbaum (Sammy Davis, Jr.), two ersatz Catholic priests in a red Ferrari. Then there’s Roger Moore (Roger Moore), or is it Seymour Goldfarb? That’s for his eyes only; not even his mother (Molly Picon) is allowed to know the truth, and neither are we. There’s also Sheik Abdul ben Falafel, an Arab sheik determined to win at all costs. Then there’s Mel (Mel Tillis) and Terry (Terry Bradshaw), two not-too-bright good ol’ boys from North Carolina in a thinly disguised NASCAR race car. Then there’s a pair of Japanese drivers (Jackie Chan, Michael Hui) in a Subaru full of gadgets. Then there’s Marcie (Adrienne Barbeau) and Jill (Tara Buckman), two women who intend to win the race by using their bodies to distract any cop who would dare give them a ticket. Last, but not least, is Bradford Compton (Bert Convy), a wealthy executive in a motorcycle with former cross-country cycling champion Shakey Finch (Warren Berlinger), who has packed on the pounds since his championship days.
There are two ways to look at Cannonball Run. The first is the traditional means of judging plot, characterization, direction, acting, editing, cinematography, and so on; by those standards it falls flat on its face. Screenwriter Brock Yates, a columnist for Car and Driver magazine, based the script on the real-life Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, a no-holds-barred, cross-country race from New York City to Redondo Beach, California that he himself created; he and Needham were one of 46 teams in the 1979 race that inspired the film. Sensing that Mr. Yates’ script doesn’t offer much for the cast to do, Needham does not so much direct the film as he allows his cast to do what they please within a set of very flexible parameters. With such a meandering plot, the film has to fall back on the actors’ performances as thinly disguised versions of themselves, constantly winking at the audience with obvious in-jokes, especially Roger Moore, who was so obviously playing a thinly disguised James Bond that the producers of the 007 film series contractually forbade him from spoofing the role as long as he continued to play it. In addition, the film is sloppily edited, and whoever was in charge of continuity seems to have been perpetually out to lunch; it’s even hazy on the criteria for winning the race. If there had been something else besides the finish line to tie the film’s tangents together and establish relationships and rivalries between the teams, it would have been much stronger from a narrative perspective.
The other way to look at it is by trying to look at it from the point of view of those who made it: as choppy and crude as it is, the cast and director are trying to make the most out of threadbare material by playing up its faults and filling in the rest on the fly. They don’t appear to have any delusions of grandeur or pretensions to any deep insights into “the human condition;” they just want to throw some funny faces onto the camera. There is a sense of deliberate absurdity with which everyone is on board, and even though it doesn’t always work, it makes it hard to actively dislike the film. Perhaps that’s why audiences overruled the critics and made the film a hit; they were in on the joke, and critics weren’t.
The film’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio is presented at 1.78:1, a trivial non-issue that takes a backseat to the main issue the transfer has: its use of DNR. HBO hasn’t scrubbed away all the fine details, but you can tell that they have tried to reduce, but not remove, the grain. It just seems too soft to look natural, and the shallow depth of field that dominates Michael C. Butler’s mediocre cinematography adds to the overall feeling of softness. On the plus side, the color is strongly saturated with warm, tan fleshtones and strong greens and blues that never bloom, and there is little edge enhancement to discern.
Originally released in mono, HBO has remixed the film in a 5.1 DTS-HD MA track that, essentially, is little more than an expanded mono track. The surround activity is limited to the sound effects, which do complement the film as they give a sense of directionality to all of the crashing cars and screeching tires. Unfortunately, the music gets the short shrift as the mix never seems to expand the score or the songs by Ray Stevens, Lou Rawls, and Chuck Mangione to full surround effect. There is nothing seriously wrong with the fidelity of the track except for occasional distortion that reflects the limitations of the era.
The only extra the disc has to offer is an audio commentary with director Hal Needham and producer Albert S. Ruddy (who also produced The Godfather). Both are quite proud of the film, and their genial, conversational tone reveals the anything-goes-if-we-think-it’s-funny mindset they had when making the film. Needham focuses on his camaraderie with cast and crew, his participation in the 1979 race and how events influenced the action in the film, his Robert Altman-esque penchant for letting actors ad-lib, and his belief that as long as audiences are entertained they are willing to overlook minor flubs; an arguable point, but it’s my job as a reviewer to notice these things. On the other hand, Ruddy talks about the film’s landmark status as one of the first to have on-screen product placements. Like the film or not, it’s well-worth a listen.
The Cannonball Run violates every rule of technically good filmmaking; it has little dramatic thrust, nonexistent characterization and slack editing and continuity. But there is an undeniable sense of fun that shines through the film’s crude construction. Its Blu-Ray debut sports a colorful transfer marred by noticeable DNR, serviceable sound, and one extra of note. This one’s strictly for die-hard fans, everyone else should rent it first.