Now here's a genre that needs to come back. With all the '70s retreads showing up in multiplexes these days, I'm genuinely shocked that nobody's decided to do a remake of any of the great all-star cast race-to-a-destination flicks that began with [i]It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World[/i], peaked with [i]Cannonball Run[/i] and crashed into a flaming, multi-car death of fire with [i]Speed Zone[/i] and [i]Million Dollar Mystery[/i]. Oh, sure, there's [i]Rat Race[/i], which ended up being better than it deserved to be, but it was too [i]Mad World[/i] and not enough [i]Cannonball[/i], as the jokes outweighed the action by a 20:1 margin. And they weren't even good jokes.
Except Jon Lovitz's character accidentally ending up dressed as Hitler at a WWII veteran's rally. That was funny. Oh, and Rowan Atkinson.
[i]Cannonball [/i]is a 1976 Corman-produced entry, co-written and directed by Paul Bartel as a follow-up to his hit [i]Death Race 2000[/i]. (Curiously, Bartel's co-writer was future [i]Top Gun[/i] producer Don Simpson--this was his first movie with explosions.) It's very similar in format to the earlier film, sharing some of the cast and plot, but eschewing the futuristic game show approach for a simple Trans-America road race based on the (real) Cannonball Run. Bartel infuses the film with a good deal of the humor he gave [i]Death Race[/i], and even if [i]Cannonball [/i]lacks the gallows sensibility that gave the earlier film its' edge, it's still a fun time-passer.
The title character is the hero, a determined parolee played by David Carradine, joined by his parole officer (Veronica Hamel). Cannonball's pal Zippo (Archie Hahn) emulates him to the point of wearing the same outfit, and racing in the same car. Cannonball's rival Redman (Bill McKinney) is also along for the ride, commissioned to drive a car by his two passengers, a cloying country singer (Gerrit Graham) and his even more cloying mother (Sharma Capri, in a Ruth Gordon role). There's also a van of foxy ladies (Mary Woronov, Diane Lee Hart and Glynn Rubin), a German weirdo (James Keach) who talks about how tragic it is that they lost the war, a nice young couple (Robert Carradine and Belinda Balaski), a lone black guy (Stanley Clay) and a cheater who takes the plane (Carl Gottlieb).
Okay, so it's not exactly an all-star cast unless you're really into B-movies of the '70s, but I am, so it counts. Bartel even got some of his director friends to show up in bit parts, including Martin Scorcese, Allan Arkush, Jonathan Kaplan, Joe Dante and Corman himself, and in a surreal moment, Bartel (who appears as a mobster), Scorcese and Sylvester Stallone sit around eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. Corman film regular Dick Miller shows up as Cannonball's older brother as well, it's a great fun to watch the entire cast, even when the movie becomes a little bit tired.
It's not that [i]Cannonball [/i]is bad, exactly--it's got plenty of clever moments and some snicker-worthy dialogue (Redman is described as being "so cold he has to jerk off in the morning just to start his heart") coupled with car chases and a climactic multi-car collision that's entertaining, even if it's never really convincing that any of the actors were anywhere near the accident itself. It just never really engages as a movie of it's own. It's filled with in-jokes, similar to (the excellent) Hollywood Boulevard, and it's fun, but the action is never really revved up or unique enough to be worth a look on it's own, and that's the point of an action film, isn't it?
Sure, there's a crash here and a police car blowing up there (this is actually pretty good), but it's not the gleefully sadistic drive-in trash that [i]Death Race 2000[/i] is, so much of the film is spent seemingly (sorry about this) stalled in second gear. The multiple plotlines swerve all over the place, but most of the characters never get a chance to interact with each other, and it may just be my "Amazing Race" addiction that's gotten me spoiled, but the climactic race-to-the-finish line seems really lame and poorly put together.
That said, there's a lot to like about [i]Cannonball.[/i] Everyone clearly had a decent time making it, the music is good, except for the Gerrit Graham songs, which are supposed to be bad (for more intentionally bad Graham singing, check out [i]Phantom of the Paradise[/i], also with Archie Hahn), it's never less than fairly entertaining and, well, stuff blows up. Maybe Corman's desire to get a PG rating for this (which he got) sedated things a little, as there's minimal violence outside the explosions and no nudity, which seems especially odd during the sequence where two girls in the van seduce a couple of cops.
[size=1](For the record, the folks who worked on both this and [i]Death Race[/i] are Paul Bartel (director, actor), Roger Corman (producer), Tak Fujimoto (D.P.), Carradine, Woronov and cameos by Stallone, Luisa Mortiz and Paul Bartel's sister Wendy.)[/size]