Ask any car nut who was a teenager during the 1970s and ‘80s about the car movies that made an impact on them back then, and you’ll invariably hear talk about the great cross-country race and chase films of the era. Smokey and the Bandit, The Gumball Rally, and The Cannonball Run will no doubt be mentioned.
But there was a little-known sea-to-shining-sea road race movie that beat all of those to the silver screen, and was thus the progenitor of the genre. Having never seen this film myself, I thought I’d give it a watch this month for Rob’s Car Movie Review. So without further delay, let’s talk about the 1976 production of Cannonball!
Cannonball! Was a low budget film produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in conjunction with three smaller production entities, and was distributed theatrically in the United States by New World as well.
The movie was directed by Paul Bartel, who had recently achieved cult success with Death Race 2000, and who would go on to helm Eating Raoul six years later. He additionally co-wrote the screenplay along with future mega-producer Don Simpson, basing it on the real-life exploits of Erwin ‘Cannonball’ Baker, who in 1933 raced from New York to Los Angeles in 53 hours.
Cannonball! stars Kung Fu’s David Carradine, classic bad guy Bill McKinney, Hill Street Blues’ Veronica Hamel, David’s younger brother Robert Carradine, and Dick Miller.
Assisting the lead actors is a coterie of known supporting actors such as Andy Warhol acolyte Mary Woronov, James Keach, Belinda Belaski and an astonishing list of cameo performers, including the likes of director Bartel, Martin Scorsese, Jaws 2 writer Carl Gottlieb, producer Roger Corman, director Joe Dante, and Sylvester Stallone!
David Carradine plays Coy “Cannonball” Buckman, a washed up-racing driver who was recently released from prison for a drunk driving incident that left a young girl dead.
Against the wishes of his parole officer girlfriend (Hamel), Buckman enters the Trans-America Grand Prix, an illegal cross-country race from Los Angeles to New York City, on the promise that a prominent racing team will hire him or his arch-rival Cade Redman (McKinney) as a driver, depending on who finishes first.
Competing against Buckman and Redman are a group of offbeat, cliched characters. There’s the trio of gorgeous gals in a souped-up van (Woronov and pals), a haughty, egotistical German race car driver (Keach), a dapper car thief, a hippie surfer couple in puppy love (Robert Carradine and Belaski), and so on.
Unbeknownst to Buckman, his older brother Bennie (Miller) has wagered a significant bet with some gangsters on Buckman winning the competition, and hires unsavory hitman types to take out his brothers’ competitors.
As the race continues on, wacky hijinks ensue as competitors drop out one by one due to mechanical attrition or Bennie’s malfeasance. With fewer and fewer cars left in the race, the stakes of Buckman and Redman’s rivalry heat up, leading to a chaotic climax.
If the plot sounds hackneyed, well, you’re right, it most certainly is; but you need to remember that this was the first film to tackle the subject. The Gumball Rally (which was in production at the same time as Cannonball!) and The Cannonball Run, are actually the imitators.
Nonetheless, the film is pretty much a mess, with cardboard cutout characters spouting inane dialogue in a largely wooden manner. The slapstick element in the movie falls way flat, and is utterly incongruous with some of the darker aspects of the film. It’s hard to mitigate over-the-top shenanigans with scenes of hitmen murdering competitors at the behest of Bennie to ensure he wins his bet.
Further, the enormous pile-up scene in the third act is ridiculous, with car after car seemingly heading intentionally into the melee and then exploding in massive fireballs.
Technically, the film is easy to forget as well. The cinematography by Tak Fujimoto, who would achieve luminous heights later in his career on films like The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and countless other hits, is about as tantalizing as your average episode of CHiPs. Everything is lit desperately flat, without thought for palette.
Likewise, the other technical aspects of the film such as editing, sound, art direction and so forth are resoundingly unremarkable. Literally nothing stands out, not even the automotive action, which is competent but largely tame. This amazed me, given that it is a movie about cars!
Thankfully there is a small collection of automotive eye candy to save this hot mess from the bottom of the abyss.
The hero car in the film is actually two vehicles – identical, red 1970 Pontiac Trans Ams driven by Buckman and his friend. Although there is some film dialogue in which the cars’ aftermarket equipment is discussed, it is typical Hollywood prattle, as the cars seem fairly stock to me with L74 Ram Air H.O. 400 cubic-inch V-8s equipped with 4-bbl. Carburetor under the hoods, and wide-ratio four-speed manual gearboxes on the floor of the interiors. The cars feature a custom paint job with racing stripes and “Cannonball” logos and standard Rally II wheels.
In typical egregious Hollywood fashion, both of these birds are destroyed in the film, with one exploding for seemingly no reason, and the other, Buckman’s car, being destroyed in a shunt when he falls asleep behind the wheel.
Buckman’s accident prompts him to buy another ride from a pair of hillbilly garage owners so he can finish the race. His new steed is a modified, green 1969 Ford Mustang.
It’s hard to tell exactly what type of Mustang the car is. While it seems to have modifications done to make it look Mach I-ish, in reality, it was probably just a stock GT with some art department additions such as hood scoop, mag wheels and side pipes added to jazz up the appearance. Sadly, like the Trans Ams, the Mustang meets an ignominious fate in the movie.
My favorite car in the film is not a muscle car at all, but instead an Italian/American hybrid in the form of a 1973 De Tomaso Pantera.
Painted in blazing canary yellow, the Pantera is simply gorgeous, one of my favorite sports cars of the 1970s. The car is driven by German race car driver, Wolfe Messer (James Keach) like a scalded cat in the film, and there is a great moment of automotive humor when he deprecates the American cars his competitors are driving, seemingly forgetting that his Pantera packs a classic Ford 351 Cleveland V8.
For Mopar nuts like me, there is a prime example of the company’s golden era muscle in the form of a triple-black 1968 Dodge Charger. Driven by Buckman’s arch-enemy, Cade Redman, the car is clearly a big-block model judging by it’s exhaust note. I’d guess it’s a 440.
Featuring a vinyl top, and aftermarket mag wheels, a pair of KC driving lights, a rear spoiler and a bunch of speed part decals, the Charger is equipped with a three-speed TorqueFlite as evidenced in a few shots of the interior.
The Charger is tossed off an in-construction highway overpass in an action sequence and destroyed. Strike four, Cannonball!
Other cars that feature heavily in the movie include Jim and Maryann’s silver 1976 Chevrolet Corvette C3, a 1969 Lincoln Continental MkIII, and countless cool early seventies Dodge Polara police cars.
Were it not for this handful of gorgeous cars to ogle, Cannonball! would be virtually unwatchable. The film lacks charm, humor and even decent automotive action. Of the trio of road-race films of the period, The Gumball Rally rates as the best, The Cannonball Run the most iconic, and this film easily the most disappointing.
It’s hard to imagine so much solid acting talent being wasted on this tripe, but my guess is that the novel concept attracted them to the project. I wish they opted otherwise. I give Cannonball! four-and-a-half out of ten pistons. Trust me, skip it.