Rob’s Car Movie Review: The Cannonball Run (1981)

If you pose the query, “who do you consider Hollywood’s king of cars?” most people these days will immediately think of Steve McQueen, Nicholas Cage, or even Paul Walker. But had you asked the same question in the 1970s and 1980s, the answer you received would most likely have been Burt Reynolds. For in the decade between 1973 and 1984, Reynolds made no less than seven films that were set amongst the world of automobiles. Fans of his will recall movies like Smokey and the Bandit I and II, Hooper, Stroker Ace, and of course, the subject of this month’s edition of Rob’s Car Movie Review, The Cannonball Run.

The Cannonball Run Movie Poster

The Cannonball Run Movie Poster.

Released in 1981, The Cannonball Run was the fourth teaming of Reynolds with director and former stunt driver Hal Needham. Filling out the cast was an all-star assemblage of Hollywood’s biggest names such as Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dom DeLuise, and Peter Fonda; as well as co-starring and cameo appearances by Adrienne Barbeau, Terry Bradshaw, Jackie Chan, Bert Convy, Valerie Perrine, Jamie Farr, Bianca Jagger, and Jimmy ‘The Greek’ Snyder.

The cast ensemble of The Cannonball Run.

The cast ensemble of The Cannonball Run.

Accompanying this illustrious cast was an assemblage of some serious exotic cars. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

The plot of The Cannonball Run is pretty much non-existent. A group of off-beat characters get together to race cross-country for the glory of persistently breaking the (then) 55mph speed limit, and avoid the police in the process.

Avoiding the police while breaking the 55mph speed limit is the name of the game in The Cannonball Run.

Avoiding the police while breaking the 55mph speed limit is the name of the game in The Cannonball Run.

That’s about it. Also clear-cut is that this concept was essentially pilfered directly from another subject of Rob’s Car Movie Review, The Gumball Rally, released five years earlier. So close are the two films in plot and style, one would assume that in today’s litigious society, there would have been a massive lawsuit by the creators of Gumball against those of Cannonball.

Whereas The Gumball Rally was an original and fun take on the idea of a grand street race, The Cannonball Run is sadly anything but. I can remember being taken to see the film in the theater as an already car-obsessed ten-year-old, and delighting in the cars and what I thought then was a hilarious narrative.

Not having seen the film in its entirety again until now, it is my unfortunate duty to report to you that stars and cars aside, The Cannonball Run is an absolutely dreadful, derivative film. I know this assessment will rankle the sensibilities of many who read this, but I should tell you that I went into this review absolutely wanting to relive the enjoyment I had of the film some thirty-five years ago, but was unable to do so.

Jack Elam as Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing.

Jack Elam as Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing.

Poorly written (by Brock Yeats, the founder of the real-life Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash race), poorly directed, poorly acted, singularly unfunny and downright boring at times, the movie has very, and I stress VERY few high points. About the only plus the film has, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, is the casting of Jack Elam as the horror show Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing, a man who, for some reason, is eager to perform prostate exams and intake his own supply of pharmaceuticals.

Even Burt Reynolds’ devilish charm fails to make any impact here.

The four-wheeled star of the film: a 1980 Lamborghini Countach S.

The four-wheeled star of the film: a 1980 Lamborghini Countach S. Oddly enough, the additional wings fore and aft made the Lambo less aerodynamic, and were purely for show.

Thankfully, The Cannonball Run’s cars are enough for the ardent car nut to make it through the film’s one hour and thirty-nine minute run time. Adrianne Barbeau pilots the film’s true four-wheel star: a sinister, jet-black 1980 Lamborghini Countach S with both front and rear wings (the front wing really got me as a kid.)

The 1979 Ferrari 308 GTS driven by Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.

The 1979 Ferrari 308 GTS driven by Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Pitted against the Lambo is the Rosso Corsa Red 1979 Ferrari 308 GTS driven by Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. Roger Moore, as Seymour Goldfarb, Jr., a Roger Moore/James Bond obsessed nut job, drives, most appropriately, a resplendent silver 1964 Aston Martin DB5.

Roger Moore's 1964 Aston Martin DB5.

Roger Moore’s 1964 Aston Martin DB5.

Also racing from coast-to-coast in the movie are Reynolds and DeLuise in a Dodge Tradesman Ambulance, Jackie Chan in a gadget-laden Subaru GL complete with rocket booster engine, Jamie Farr in a white Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, and Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis in a replica of Donnie Allison’s 1976 Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna NASCAR Winston Cup stock car.

The 1977 Chevrolet Monte Carlo NASCAR Winston Cup stock car.

The 1976 Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna NASCAR Winston Cup stock car.

Despite the movie’s poor execution, it went on make $72 million in domestic distribution, to become the sixth highest-grossing film of 1981, behind Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond, Superman II, Arthur, and Stripes. In the process, it spawned a franchise of two more dreadful Cannonball movies, and somehow carved itself a niche in the pantheon of car films. So much so, it seems, that Warner Brothers has recently purchased an option to remake it. Let’s hope they do a better job this time around.

I give The Cannonball Run five out of ten pistons.


About The Author: Rob Finkelman is a freelance writer for Street Muscle Magazine. He attended and graduated from New York University’s film school in 1992, and subsequently worked in the movie business for twenty years as a documentarian and screenwriter. Combining his two great passions in life – films and cars – and writing about them is a dream job for him. He will be bringing us a Car Movie Review each month, and he’s open to suggestions so list yours below.

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Born and raised in Manhattan, Rob studied film production at New York University's elite Tisch School of the Arts film school. Upon graduating in 1992, he relocated to Los Angeles and established a career in documentary production and screenwriting. In 2015, Rob decided to change tack and combine his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and StreetLegalTV. He is an avid automotive and racing enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and musclecars.
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