Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) is an unscrupulous corrupt used car salesman who is planning a career in politics – so he can be an unscrupulous corrupt politician. However, he needs a huge amount of cash for his campaign and business isn’t so great at the Phoenix used car lot he works at.
The owner of the New Deal Used Car lot Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) is trying to be driven out of business by his neighboring competitor who happens to be his twin brother Roy L. Fuchs (also Warden). Roy is anticipating a newly built freeway ramp to be a business bonanza and its construction means only one car lot will survive and he’ll do anything to make sure it will be his.
After Luke suffers a fatal heart attack, Roy is excited he’ll inherit the New Deal Lot and can turn it to dust, however, Rudy and his pals go about keeping up the charade that Luke is alive, throw any business scruples they might have right out window with as many devious schemes they can think up to unload lemon cars to customers in order to put Roy out of business.
Used Cars is a hilarious black comedy. It might be one of the most underrated comedies of the 1980s. It’s cynical, vulgar, raunchy and extremely funny. I still find it kind of hard to think back that once upon a time this movie came from the collaboration of director Robert Zemeckis, writer Bob Gale and executive producer Steven Spielberg.
It’s so far removed from most of their latter more family-friendly. mainstream successful collaborations that it makes Used Cars really feel like a unique ancient artifact. A type of movie that would never be made again by the filmmakers in their latter years. It’s low-budget, dirty, rough and doesn’t shy away with what it is and what it’s trying to do.
It could only exist from the minds of energetic, daring young filmmakers who weren’t afraid of upsetting, insulting or offending an audience and wanted to give the ones who this type of movie was made for the best time and the most laughs possible.
This was the period when Russell was finding his footing. It was that window of time between his Disney youth pictures and his soon-to-be John Carpenter’s go-to leading man starting with Escape From New York the following year. And he’s very funny in this. He plays the over-the-top comedy in this to the hilt and isn’t afraid to be an unlikable charlatan.
In fact most of the characters in Used Cars are not very nice people. They’re all trying to rip off innocent people, lies fly out of their mouths, there’s no guilt over breaking the law and physically hurting each other is all part of their jobs. Even fellow salesman Jeff’s cute little dog gets to help hoodwink consumers. And it’s all hysterical.
Russell is helped by Jeff (Gerrit Graham) and Jim the Mechanic (Frank McRae). Jeff is an overly superstitious salesman who’s dog Tobey helps him move cars. Jeff and Tobey’s sales pitch becomes one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.
Ever since first watching this on cable years ago I always thought Jeff’s fear of red cars was a real superstition, but eventually learned it was just something made up for the movie. Luckily, his fear gets exploited for Zemickis’ wild race to the finish climax.
For those who are only familiar with McRae as James Bond’s lovable, loyal pal Sharky in License to Kill, his role here is a bucket of cold water in your face. He’s so downright angry in this movie. He’s throwing out the cursing, threatening potential customers. He has quite a few funny quote-worthy lines too.
Probably my favorite McRae moment is after we learn that business is taking a dip and Rudy says that they had nuns protesting in front of the lot that morning and casually adds, “I had Rudy turned the firehose on them”. And McRae adds enthusiastically, “And I knocked those mutherfuckers right on their asses too.” No matter how many times I watch this movie that line and McRae’s delivery still makes me laugh.
I have to add at the time when I first watched this I always thought it was so cool that David L. Lander and Michael McKean showed up in this. I remember thinking back first watching this in the early 80’s that it was such a hoot to see Lenny and Squiggy in a movie together.
Jack Warden always adds a spark to any movie he shows up in and here playing two roles he’s so much fun to watch. He doesn’t have any problem losing his temper and screaming out vindictive curse words as the evil Roy.
According to the DVD commentary Zemickis says that Warden agreed to be in the movie just because it allowed him the chance to play duel roles and get to play dead. I never imagined the ‘dead thing’ would be the real hook for an actor to accept a role. Fortunately, Warden did and he’s a scream in this.
Deborah Harmon is Barbara Luke’s daughter who’s inconvenient arrival throws Rudy’s plans in even more of a tailspin. She’s sweet and nice, but immediately becomes another one of his targets for his lies. But perhaps her wholesome good-nature will be what Rudy needs to set him on the straight and honest path – or maybe not.
Some of the video manipulation that is done by Fuchs which is the lynchpin to building to the climax is kind of quaint looking now. I imagine it’s not nearly as amazing as it was at the time, but it doesn’t matter it ends up putting the gang on a last desperate beat the clock race of saving the lot with an army of cars barreling through the desert. And it’s pretty impressive looking. They couldn’t have had much money behind this movie.
When I watch this now I always envision a lot less safety regulations put in place when this was made since some of the car stunts look genuinely dangerous. At one point in his commentary Zemeckis comments on how close a speeding car comes to hitting Graham in a scene and it is unbelievably close. Seeing that gives me more of a rush than anything in those Fast & Furious movies.
So much attention has been given recently towards the Back to the Future films – notably the second one with the recent passing of that October 21st 2015 date – but I think Used Cars is miles better than both the Future sequels.
For me it ranks up there with my other favorite comedies from the period – The Blues Brothers, Animal House, Caddyshack. This is the Zemeckis flick that deserves to get a moment of reflection, be rewatched and get discovered by ones who never saw it. Granted little kids probably shouldn’t be celebrating it, but that’s just fine.