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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Cannonball! (1976)



There was a brief craze of car based drive-in movies that cropped up in the seventies. These flicks ranged from the serious like Vanishing Point all the way to the absurd like Death Race 2000. Cannonball falls more towards the latter which shouldn’t be a surprise since it is made by the same director, Paul Bartel, and was made the following year. With that in mind lets dive right into some more automotive carnage.

Our main character in Cannonball is Coy Buckman, played by David Carradine. We meet him as he is having a nightmare where he is driving a car only to be shot thru the forehead. He wakes up and then sneaks out to the garage to find his best friend Zippo working the car from his dreams. There is a big race, the Cannonball, coming up and they are getting the car ready. The winner gets a cool 100k and becomes an immediate legend. This brings together a motley crew including a German professional race car driver, a van full of lovely ladies, a surfer couple, and an old enemy from Coy’s past. Once they hit the road hijinks ensue.

I think that Cannonball is trying to be a funny movie, but the tone is so off that it doesn’t work, at least for me. There is some light comedy that is immediate followed by someone getting blown up or smashed under a car! I’m not talking slapstick stuff where we see them walk away with there hair all frazzled… these characters die! While that works well in the odd dystopian setting of Bartel’s previous effort, Death Race 2000, here it fails. That is probably because it is set in the real world and I just couldn’t get past the fact that with this many bodies dropping the characters would be able to just walk away at the end.

A more important question is how are we even supposed to like these characters? The best example of this is Bennie, played by the always awesome Dick Miller. The character is introduced with his henchmen planting something on the German’s car. We later find out that he is Coy’s brother and has a ton of money bet on him to win. So of course, he is going to have all these complicated schemes that will lead to fun shenanigans, right? Nope he just straight up kills people while the movie plays it up as if he is comic relief. I found that rather jarring. It would have been much better if they had just made him a villain and given the movie a darker tone. Instead we get other bits of comedy like the singing cowboy broadcasting from a Dodge Charger, the van of lovely ladies “dealing” with some cops, and the continually more banged up Lincoln Continental gag. I really don’t know what to think about this one.

They straight up killed that dude!
This was a New World Pictures production, so we get the Corman regulars showing up. In addition to those that I’ve already mentioned we also get actresses Mary Wornov and Belinda Balaski. Directors Joe Dante and Allan Arkush make small appearances. Roger Corman even shows up for a short scene as a district attorney trying to shut the race down. Though hands down the best and craziest cameos have director Paul Bartel, who also plays the mobster taking all the bets from Miller’s character, in a scene with a couple of henchmen. They are played by an uncredited Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese! All these people have connections to Roger Corman and the low budget flicks he was cranking out as either a director or later a producer.

I like Paul Bartel’s movies. The aforementioned Death Race 2000 as well as Eating Raoul and the criminally ignored Private Parts are great movies. His stuff is always quirky as he has a unique style. I’m not sure if it just doesn’t fit this kind of movie or if he needed to go completely dark or light with this one. Cannonball doesn’t work for me and I can’t recommend it.


© Copyright 2020 John Shatzer

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