Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1976)

3. Cannonball!

“Cannonball” is a movie Paul Bartel apparently made with some reluctance. After the success of “Death Race 2000,” all he was getting offered were action films, or even more narrowly, car films. Bartel was pretty obviously a comedy director so this was frustrating for him. But, no need to turn down steady work, right? His lack of satisfaction with the material is all too evident some times. The director did give it a decent shot though. “Cannonball” is far from a failure, if a bit uneven.

The premise is easy to understand and captivating enough that it actually spawned a number of imitators, including the big budget “Cannonball Run” series. (“Gumball Rally,” too.) Every year, there’s an illegal, underground, cross country race held, from California to New York. Any one with a vehicle on four wheels can entered and the winner has the chance to win 10,000 dollars. Coy “Cannonball” Buckman, a former cop recently released from prison, is primed to win, much to the consternation of his parole officer/girlfriend, and much to the glee of his high-risk gambler brother. Of course, Cannonball is just one of a group of racers, which include his best friend and mechanic, a psychotic rival, a teenage couple, a manic German, a van full of sexy twenty-something girls, and a black kid constantly on the tail of the girls. There’s other subplots too, among them a cheating fat guy, a singing cowboy, Cannonball’s brother’s underhanded attempts to swing the race in his favor, and his run-ins with an especially eccentric booky.

Due to the large cast, none of the characters are really developed beyond quirks and gimmicks. So it’s really up to the cast to imbue the thin sketches with enough personality to make them worth watching, or at least take the one-note joke and run with it. The movie is a cousin to “Death Race 2000” not just because of the same director and a premise involving cars and a cross-country race. It shares cast too.

David Carradine stars as the title character. Important question: Could David Carradine act? He brings the same emotional coldness to Cannonball that he brought to Frankenstein. While it made sense for that character, here Carradine just seems kind of sleepy and uninterested. More interested is Dick Miller as the unlucky brother, Richie. Miller is just doing a variation on his scumbag routine he played so many times for Roger Corman, but he’s as lively as ever. Carradine brother Robert shows up as the male half of the teenage couple. While that storyline is one of the film’s thinner moments, Robert does have some fun, especially in the scene that involves tricking a cop and jumping around a parking lot.

Mary Woronov is underused as the ringleader of the group of underdressed girls. That group’s interaction with the mischievous black teen and a pair of horny patrol cops provide some of the film’s funnier moments. Doing his own singing, in a subplot that is amusing but mostly unrealized, Gerrit Graham has a lot of fun hamming it up as a country singer who is along for the ride for some reason. James Keach takes the part of the wacky German and takes it to Udo Kier levels of silliness, resulting in some pretty funny exchanges. (He wisely exits the soon fairly early, as not to overexpose the character.)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Bill McKinney plays the villainous Cade Redman as a steely gazed professional with a violent, obsessive desire to crush Cannonball. Rounded out the cast is Bartel himself, as Miller’s bookie, a man who fashions himself a Cole-Porter-style singer-songwriter. The movie is loaded with cameos from New World Pictures crew like Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, Martin Scorsese, Sly Stallone, and Roger Corman, no-doubt intentionally playing a hardass police chief.

The script is co-credited to Bartel and Don Simpson. The film seems to be of two minds. The main storyline is a pretty typical seventies car flick, with all the crashes, explosions, and gap-jumping you expect of the genre and time period. None of this is surprising, since Simpson later found much more success as the producer of such big-budget action films as “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Days of Thunder,” and “Bad Boys.”

However, Bartel’s influence is still present. All the funny and wacky stuff, like the singing cowboy or naughty girls, were pretty obviously his work. I suspect a lot of the amusing one-liners probably came from his typewriter as well. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Bartel was handed a completely ordinary car chase script and ended up adding a bunch of stuff that appealed to him. The funky score similarly goes back and forth between light-hearted and more driving.

The two tones end up conflicting with each other, especially come the last act. Towards the end of the movie, a character is shot and killed, someone is crushed when the car they are hiding under is knocked off the jacks, a car explodes in an enormous fireball, and a huge pile-up results. While the last item on that list could be going for “Blues Brothers” style over-the-top humor, the flames and explosions leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Some of it is cool, of course, like a flaming tire shooting high into the sky, but over all the graphic violence definitely sticks out and clashes with the film’s overall breezy, goofy tone. Maybe Paul was still bitter about the gore-filled inserts added to “Death Race” and decided to give Corman what he wanted this time.

This is an action movie of course. There is a lot of stunt driving, as expected. However, while “Death Race” was shot in a frequently dynamic and exciting way, the action-direction is a lot more typical here. The roll-overs and crashes are exciting enough on their own but the regular driving doesn’t amount to much. If anything, the number of hand-to-hand fight scenes gratuitously injected into the script, probably to appeal to Carridine’s “Kung Fu” fandom, are much more exciting and interesting to look at. A scene in which Carradine and McKinney demolish a small gas station during their fight is probably my favorite in the movie. An earlier scene, where Cannonball tussles with a hitman disguised as a patrolman, is fun but really shows the limitations Carradine had as a martial artist.

The film’s ending is a tad abrupt. Most of the dangling plot threads are resolved quickly in natural, if slightly rushed pattern. However, considering all the sudden killing that goes on in the last fifteen minutes, the last-minute hospital visit really doesn’t resolve the film’s emotional issues, as they are.

Over all, “Cannonball!” is probably best taken as the light-weight, disposable drive-in fair it was no doubt intended to be. You can tell Bartel’s heart wasn’t completely in this one and his attempts to make the movie more to his liking just ended up making it more uneven. Fans of polished chrome and burning rubber will probably love it though. [Grade: B-]

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