The Cannonball Run
Starring: Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Farrah Fawcett
Directed by: Hal Needham
There is nothing wrong with a movie where you can tell the actors are just phoning it in and the script is so basic, it feels like something copied from a first-year screenwriting course. As long as the movie is fun to watch and you know what you’re getting into as the opening credits roll, a film like Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run can seem like a mindless diversion good enough to waste one’s time. And, for the most part, it is indeed a fun movie to watch; but there are so times during the film where the many miscues and errors feel like you’re watching the outtakes during the end credits rather than the actual film.
The story of The Cannonball Run is fairly simple (if completely implausible although it is based on a true story). A motley crew of malcontents are racing from one end of the United States to the other. The bit players make up an eclectic cast such as: an Arabian sheik (Jamie Farr), a former race-car driver and a degenerate gambler posing as priests (Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.), a Japanese racing team in a car that has more electronics than NASA (Jackie Chan and Michael Hui), two women dressed in skin-tight clothing that is always undone so they can subdue any male police officer (Tara Buckman and Adrienne Barbeau), and Seymour Goldfarb, Jr. (Roger Moore) who thinks he’s actually Roger Moore (not a cameo, just delusional).
However, the main protagonists are J. J. McClure (Burt Reynolds) and Victor (Dom DeLuise). Reynolds plays the too-cool-for-everyone role here as evidenced by him driving a sports car, flying a plane (and landing it on a city street), and cruising around in a speed boat (into a small cruise ship) all within the first 20 minutes of the film. He also falls for “Beauty” (Farrah Fawcett) who first appears to him in a sweaty hotel bar with no bra so you can see her nipples through her clothing. Even though he lies to her about his intentions (his race-car is an ambulance and he’s claiming to be a paramedic), she still falls for him after he kidnaps her from the site of an accident because he needs a patient to make the rouse more believable.
That’s right, J. J. and Victor are driving around as paramedics because their thinking is that the cops won’t stop an ambulance. Same with Martin and Davis’s characters as they think their saintly disguises will get them out of trouble (even though they are driving a Ferrari). All these shenanigans do lead to some funny scenes, clever dialogue, and some interesting ways in how the different teams interact with each other in a bid to stop their opponents and come in first.
Yet, despite this film not exactly billing itself worthy of an Oscar nomination, stumbles due to some deep flaws. The horrible editing and scene cutting is beyond horrible. There was one scene at the beginning of the race where all the teams are standing around and receiving their final instructions. Every single cut of the camera had everyone in the crowd standing in different places. It was so bad, it was getting nauseating. There were many other scenes where characters would swap places, clothing would be undone and then the next cut would show the clothing being modified, and liberties taken in the believability of the what’s happening on screen for the sake of having the story make sense. This isn’t nitpicking; it’s overkill in this film and really takes away from an otherwise mindlessly enjoyable film.
Although another issue is Farrah Fawcett’s character. Sure, times may have been different in 1981 but this was taking the idea of a dumb blonde to another level. She is only there for eye candy (and someone for Burt Reynolds with to snuggle up). She loves trees, and, you know this because she keeps saying it over and over and over again with a look in her eyes as if she had been smoking a few trees herself. Her characterization is offensive. The damsel-in-distress act was dumb and the Stockholm Syndrome she exhibits as she falls for the guy who abducts her tells you about the quality of writing for female film characters in the 1980s. At least with Buckman and Barbeau’s characters, the idea of putting them in catsuits (and peeling them off) was a way of making a point on how single-minded many men can be and they were both portrayed as cunning women with a plan. “Beauty” on the other hand is not even the real name of Fawcett’s character as it was the name J. J. gives her in the hotel. That’s because she’s gorgeous and her name is not important; or at least that’s the message I got from this film.
There are some other missteps. The fight scene towards the end of the film seems totally random and put in there to show off some of Jackie Chan’s skills (even if some of his fists and kicks missed by a wide margin). The ending is ridiculously dumb and so bad that you’re best left to stop the movie after the fight scene.
With all that said, The Cannonball Run is still a fun movie. It doesn’t matter if it feels like the crew is phoning it in at time and just palling around or that Burt Reynolds is doing his best to make it look like he’s the coolest guy ever; Hal Needham’s film is still a somewhat pleasant experience. The horrific editing, inexcusable character of “Beauty”, and the idiotic ending will derail it for some. While it may be an enjoyable goofball movie for some, it’s hard to recommend this film to anyone. The only reason why this film doesn’t get the one-star treatment is because there are worse films out there and even though this film feels so unpolished and inappropriate, it would be ill-fitted to lump it with films that are completely unwatchable. Watch this with all the caveats in mind, and, if you make it that far, you’ll have a good time while it lasts.