Cannonball Run (1981) – A Review


A review of the 1981 action comedy The Cannonball Run, starring Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Farrah Fawcett, Roger Moore, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and an all-star cast

Burt Reynolds and carloads of celebrities set out on a race across the country! Driving from the east to the west coast, the huge cast break traffic laws, race from police, fight bike gangs and yuk it up as the miles increase.

Hal Needham directs the star-studded cast. Backing Burt up is – Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, Roger Moore, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Adrienne Barbeau, Peter Fonda, Jackie Chan, Jack Elam, Jamie Farr, Bert Convy, George Furth, Terry Bradshaw, Mel Tillis, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder and more!

It’s the ultimate road movie, with everyone not willing to stop, putting the pedal to the metal and trying to make it first over the finish line to win the legendary Cannonball Run!

The Cannonball Run is one of those ‘time capsule movies’. It’s a film that encapsulates a certain era, in this case the late 70’s/early 80’s.

Here, we have a Hal Needham film that is one of his ‘car movies’, in the same vein as Smokey and the Bandit. Yep, this genre was packing in audiences at the time. Mega-star Reynolds’ charisma carrying his way through a film. There’s that catchy, but cheesy theme song by Ray Stevens as we watch all the cars race down highways. Beautiful vehicles like Lamborgini’s and Ferrari’s, tearing down roads. 

Burt-Reynolds-Farrah-Fawcett-Cannonball-Run-1981And of course there’s the rest of the cast! Most were at the height of their fame at this time. Headlining was Reynolds who’s romantic onscreen partner was Fawcett, whose smile and hair had made her an iconic persona.

You would be hard pressed to name an actor and actress who encapsulated the 1970s the way Burt and Farrah had done. They were pretty much the Hollywood faces of the decade. Pairing them up in a film – it seems like such a given! Ok, so we’re in the 1980s with Cannonball Run, and their stars are going to begin to dim soon, but I’m actually surprised them teaming onscreen hadn’t happened sooner. 

If Cannonball Run had been made a few years earlier, maybe Reynolds’ real life squeeze Sally Field, might’ve played his romantic lead.

The rest of the cast are all recognizable actors and personalities. All of them being together in one movie made it feel like this was something very special. Even if you’re not a fan of the film, seeing the cast list and that great looking poster would make you step back and take a pause. It’s like the roster of stars you could only hope to find on Battle of the Network Stars and an afternoon of daytime game shows!

Put all those components together and The Cannonball Run is one of those films that is an ideal candidate that makes you say, good or bad, “they don’t make movies like that anymore”. 

The-Cannonball-Run-1981-illegal-race-action-car-castThe story is as simple as A to B. An eclectic group of racers gas up their speedy vehicles and try to make it from the east coast of the U.S. in Connecticut to west coast California. It doesn’t matter the road vehicle you drive – an ambulance, a Ferrari, a motorcycle, a Lamborghini Countach, a Rolls-Royce, a van, a gadget-stocked classic 1963 Aston Martin DB5, a high-tech Subaru 4WD Hatchback. If it has wheels and can be driven you’re good to go!

The Cannonball Run, wasn’t the first film that was based on the Cannonball which was an actual illegal race. Held five times in the 1970s, it’s real name was The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. Director Hal Needham had run it in 1979, in a particular vehicle that features prominently in his film.

Cannonball-Run-1981-comedy-race-movie-castThe films Cannonball and The Gumball Rally, both racing action comedies released in 1976, used the illegal race as inspiration. They’re not as remembered or were as popular as Needham’s star-packed Cannonball Run, but they’re all pretty much the same films. Part wacky racing comedy, part It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World


Dom-DeLuise-Cannonball-Run-1981-Captain-ChaosReynolds and pal DeLuise are the main racers we follow. J.J. McClure (Reynolds) is a hotshot racer and Victor Prinzi (DeLuise) is his mechanic. Victor has a bit of a loose nut as he has an alter ego – the crime-fighting hero Captain Chaos. When donning his mask and cape the Victor turns from Burt’s portly comedic sidekick, to Captain Chaos, a capable do-gooder adept at daring acts of courage!

I don’t know how they ever came up with this comedy bit, but as silly as it is, it ended up being quite a memorable part of The Cannonball Run.

Maybe it was because superheroes were so rare to see in movies and television at the time, that caused Captain Chaos to be an exciting thing for kids to see. I recall during the early 80’s all us kids knew Captain Chaos and DeLuise singing his own theme song, “Dum dum DUUUUM”. Yeah, it’s ludicrous. 

J.J. and Victor come up with the idea of dressing as orange-jacketed EMT workers driving an ambulance in the Cannonball. The logic being, they could fly through traffic without much trouble being stopped by the cops. 

This is where some interesting trivia about the film comes in. You know how I mentioned Needham had raced in the real Cannonball Run a few years earlier? He had run it using the same exact ambulance featured in the film. The ambulance suffered transmission failure 50 miles from the finish line, so Needham never completed the race fully.

Needham, his crew and the ambulance he used in the real Cannonball race in 1979. Needham used actress Tara Buckman (who is Barbeau’s blonde partner in the film) as the ‘patient’ during the real race

Needham makes a cameo as an EMT in the back of the ambulance when the idea hits J.J. and Victor. I would be curious whatever happened to that ambulance. Needham donated it to the NASCAR Woman’s Wive’s Auxillary, who then auctioned it off to a flower shop in North Carolina. From there, it’s a mystery to its whereabouts. It must be sitting in some collectors garage or covered in some barn today. 

As Needham had really done, J.J. and Victor recruit a doctor to help sell their charade. That’s where distinctive bug-eyed Elam comes in, who is accompanied by some old spooky music every time he enters a scene. The last part of the puzzle needed is a pretty girl to play the role of the patient, but they just can’t seem to find one. 

Cue Farrah! She plays the sweet, tree-loving photographer Pamela Glover, who J.J. ends up nicknaming ‘Beauty’. At the start, Beauty is working with the uptight Arthur J. Foyt (George Furth) who has learned of the upcoming Cannonball race and wants to stop it.

Farrah-Fawcett-Cannonball-Run-1981-action-comedyOnce the race starts, J.J. and Victor shanghai Beauty to play their patient. She is at first resistant, but then gradually enjoys being a part of the race and starts to fall for Burt. Meanwhile Foyt is contacting police across the country to identify and stop these racers.

It’s really not that complicated. From there, it’s a patchwork of comedy bits bouncing back and forth between every star, I mean Cannonballer, getting into funny little road moments. 

The mileage with the comedy can vary for everyone. Some might find it amusing watching Jackie Chan and his Chinese partner driving their high-tech Subaru using an infrared scope to navigate in the dark of night. Bert Convy and Warren Berlinger dressed as a bride and groom on a motorcycle with Berlinger’s weight making them drive in a wheelie for the entire race.

Then there’s Dean and Sammy doing ‘Rat Pack’ type of jokes. Martin does his drunken, lounge lizard persona while the pair are dressed as priests. Jamie Farr is an outlandish Arabian sheik who yells a lot. Mel Tillis and Terry Bradshaw are a pair of beer-swilling good old boys where Tillis gets to display his famous stutter. 

Adrienne-Barbeau-Tara-Buckman-Cannonball-Run-1981-sexy-spandexOf course you need some sexiness, as if Farrah wasn’t enough, Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman in the Lamborghini Countach easily provide more of it.

Dressed wearing skintight spandex body suits, using their cleavage to get out of traffic tickets – that is until they encounter Valerie Perrine in a cameo. The pair were probably the most memorable Cannonballers to young teens. 

The film could have just followed these two and young males would’ve been quite happy.

My personal favorite Cannonballer would have to be Roger Moore, who plays rich Seymour Goldfarb, Jr. It’s a very meta role. Seymour pretends to be movie star ‘Roger Moore’ who is famous for playing his James Bond persona. It’s a lot of fun watching Moore parody his own image. There’s a revolving line of beautiful women sitting beside him. After acting tough and capable, he gets his laid out with one punch. Plus, he gets to drive the famous Aston Martin DB5, which he never got to do in any of his Bond films.

Roger-Moore-in-Cannonball-Run-1981-comedyIt’s kind of amazing to think about the fact Cannonball Run featuring Moore, where he’s making fun of his James Bond image, was released ONLY A WEEK before the Bond film For Your Eyes Only

Moore’s spoofing of his image rankled some feathers with Bond producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli who was not happy at all that his prized star was playing his valued charming, sophisticated image for laughs. Broccoli might not have thought it was funny, but for me Moore is a true highlight in Cannonball Run and he’s looking like he’s having a great time playing it. 

The movie is all a silly, lightweight frolic. It’s like watching these stars get together, have a good time, moving from each doing some comedic business, piecing them all together for a race and punctuating it with car stunts. I don’t think anyone really took it very seriously. The inclusion of outtakes during the closing credits shows what a hoot everyone was having making it. 

Needham, DeLuise and Reynolds

I’ve read that Needham had to convince Reynolds to do the movie after he had much hesitation. He finally agreed, after getting a big payday and the deal that all his scenes would be shot first so he didn’t have to stick around longer than he needed to.

The result was that The Cannonball Run was a big hit. Critics hated it, but audiences went to see it in droves. At the time it was the fourth biggest opening film of all time. It remains a popular film with fans. 

Unfortunately, like with the Smokey and the Bandit films, they should’ve stopped when they were ahead with The Cannonball Run.

A sequel followed and the charm had run out of the gas tank. I always thought the second film was downright awful! Despite having even more stars, Cannonball Run II (1984) is extremely unfunny, it looked shoddy, was a complete drag and didn’t come close to capturing the allure of the first film.

Maybe the novelty of it had already worn off at that point. The improvisational style and tired Needham car chases make it a real slog to get through. I really dislike Cannonball II. The ending is even an incredible cheat! 

Burt-Reynolds-in-The-Cannonball-Run-1981-action-race-comedyAt that point Reynolds appearing in a racing comedy had become a worn out phenomena and the best of his collaborations with Needham were long over. Teaming with Needham for Stroker Ace in 1983 and the cold reception it got should’ve been a signal for Reynolds to step away from the vehicle comedies.

There were still hopes that more mileage could be gotten out of The Cannonball films. Speed Zone would come out in 1989. It’s kind of odd film. Clearly it was originally meant to be an official ‘Cannonball Run III’. It’s another all-star cast (although not as shining as the first two) racing in the Cannonball, but the only character from the original two that returns is Jamie Farr as the Sheik. For whatever reason, the film was released as Speed Zone, but it’s clearly in the Cannonball Run Universe. It came and went without much attention or box office earnings.

Cast-of-Cannonball-Run-1981-Reynolds-Fawcett-Moore-Barbeau-Chan-Convy-Fonda-DeLuiseThere have been consistent rumors for a LONG time of a reboot of The Cannonball Run. Still, nothing has come of it. Perhaps the Fast and Furious cast could do it?

Whatever the future that lies ahead for the Cannonball Run franchise, I think it’s doubtful any kind of reboot or sequel could top the dumb fun the original film managed to capture. It’s probably best to leave it alone and let it remain a time capsule movie and a reminder of what films once were during a particular time period that is long gone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *