The Cannonball Run (1981)

*. Why hasn’t this movie been remade? Or why has it taken so long to remake? I ask for a couple of reasons
*. In the first place, it’s a terrible movie that nevertheless made a ton of money and generated its own sequel just a few years later. That’s a combination that screams remake to most studios.
*. Second: it has dated, but in obvious ways related to fashion that can be easily corrected. I don’t think the concept has gone out of style. On the DVD commentary, producer Paul Ruddy remarks that “if you had this movie out today it would be just as successful, this exact movie.” Director Hal Needham immediately agrees: “Oh, I think so.”
*. On the review show Sneak Previews Gene Siskel, who thought The Cannonball Run “unbelievably bad,” would only disagree in the matter of execution. As he put it: “if there’s a sure-fire formula in American movies it’s the car chase cross-country, it always works, until this one. They blow the easiest formula in the history of American movies. Films like The Gumball Rally, Grand Theft Auto, Deathrace 2000, these are no-brainer films. And they blow this.”
*. It’s also true that some parts of the formula here have had continued success in our own time. We still have car chase movies that do well, as witness the Fast and The Furious franchise and its cast of “highway scofflaws and degenerates” (as they are dubbed here by the racemaster). We also have contemporary examples of these all-star cast movies working, as we’ve seen with the Ocean’s films. So doesn’t The Cannonball Run deserve a remake, whatever meaning you want to put on “deserve” in this context?
*. In some ways it also can be considered a bit ahead of its time. All of the self-reflexive winks, for example, with Roger Moore playing a guy who thinks he’s Roger Moore playing James Bond. Or, when Dom DeLuise suggests getting a black Trans Am for the race, having Burt tell him “that’s been done before” (a reference to the Smokey and the Bandit movies). Or Peter Fonda in a cameo as a biker. And there’s also the business of running outtakes and bloopers during the end credits, which Needham claims to have invented.
*. Those end credits are representative, however, of what I disliked the most about The Cannonball Run. They’re evidence of the fun everyone was having on set, which is often an indication that a production is overly self-indulgent or even out of control. Think of Beat the Devil, or those Ocean’s movies I just mentioned. You get the same feeling while listening to the commentary, as Ruddy and Needham keep laughing at a bunch of stuff that isn’t funny at all.
*. Roger Ebert thought all of this in bad faith. “The Cannonball Run is an abdication of artistic responsibility at the lowest possible level of ambition. In other words, they didn’t even care enough to make a good lousy movie. Cannonball was probably always intended as junk, as an easy exploitation picture. But it’s possible to bring some sense of style and humor even to grade-zilch material. This movie doesn’t even seem to be trying.”
*. I’m not so sure. They don’t seem to have been trying very hard, but I think they thought they were at least giving the audience what it wanted (and, apparently, did). When Needham says that “in this kind of movie you’ve got to be ridiculous to hold people’s attention and entertain them” I think he’s being honest. As he is when he says, “if you can’t think of anything else to do, blow up something.” We even get the old cliché of a car exploding into a fireball after just being nudged.
*. A more targeted criticism would be to say that it was just a cash grab. That’s what Burt Reynolds thought anyway, when it made him the highest-paid actor in history for getting $5 million for four weeks work. “I did it to help out a friend of mine, Hal Needham, and I also felt it was immoral to turn down that kind of money. I suppose I sold out, so I couldn’t really object to what people wrote about me.”
*. Another example of the bottom-line thinking is all the product placement. Lots of brand names are featured throughout and DeLuise even sings a couple of commercial jingles. And Needham was totally unapologetic for this, proud of exploiting all the endorsements.
*. Apparently the script had a lot of improvisation and at times there doesn’t seem to be anything connecting the various episodes at all. We’re just magically whisked from one to another. For no reason at all Burt and Dom are in a plane, which they land in the middle of a town somewhere just so Dom can pick up more beer. Then they take off again. There’s no continuity running through any of this.
*. A great trivia question to spring on your friends: Who actually wins the race? I believe it’s Adrienne Barbeau’s team — we see her being the first to punch the clock at the end — though I don’t think it’s ever mentioned. I guess it was never all that important.
*. So why not do it all over again? They’d have to work on making it more politically correct, but it could still be done. And done better. This is a movie that a lot of people have fond memories of — I think of Captain Chaos in particular — but most of it is just terrible. The rest only looks good in the rear view mirror, but I think the brand could be pimped out for another rodeo.

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