The Trans-America Grand Prix, a real-life illegal coast to coast car race, had inspired a number of Hollywood movies, starting in 1976 with Warner Brothers' THE GUMBALL RALLY and this film, CANNONBALL, released the same year. Director Paul Bartel had a big hit with the sci-fi racing film DEATH RACE 2000 the year before, so it's no surprise that Roger Corman's New World Pictures reunited him again with star David Carradine for this high action, fast-paced funfest which no doubt led to carbon copies such as the "Cannonball Run" films of the early 80s.
Coy "Cannonball" Buckman (David Carradine), a stock car driver with a sorted past, awakes after a nightmare where is he was shot in the head at the wheel of his car. He then takes off to compete in the Trans-American Grand Prix race which starts in Los Angeles and ends in New York. His parole officer girlfriend (Veronica Hamel) warns him not speed away in his red Trans Am, but since Cannonball is so cool, he persuades her to go along for the ride. Anyone can enter this competition, so a number of assorted misfits are out on the road pulling childish pranks on each other that sometimes turn out deadly, all for the sake of a $100,000 grand prize. Cannonball has an arch enemy in rival driver Cade Redman (Bill McKinney from DELIVERANCE), a copy-cat best friend named Zippo (Archie Hahn) and a sleazy older brother (perfectly cast Corman/New World favorite Dick Miller) who attempts to fix the race while making bets with the local mafia. All three's interference is enough to hinder Cannonball, but even the destruction of his beloved Trans Am is not enough to end his determination to win.
Buckman's fellow competitors are a diverse bunch who keep things rousing. They include a fat family man who cheats by flying his car in a cargo plane, spending most of his time in a motel room busty mistress Louisa Moritz; a nice young couple (Robert Carradine and Belinda Balaski) who run from the cops after stealing a fan belt and later stop to rescue an accident victim; a young black man who is supposed to be driving an old couple's mint Lincoln safely to New York; a van with three girls (led by Mary Worvonov) who use their female charms to sidetrack some policemen, one played by 60s AIP regular Aron Kincaid; an early-casualty German racer (James Keach) who constantly talks to himself while driving; and a goofy country western singer (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE's Gerrit Graham) and his manager (Judy Canova) who ride with the villain and stir up a lot of (sometimes comic) tension. Bartel also appears as a musically preoccupied mafia leader, and there are cameos by filmmakers Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, Jonathan Kaplan and Don Simpson (who also co-wrote the screenplay). The best cameos are saved for Martin Scorsese and an uncredited Sylvester Stallone, seen as hitmen eating a bucket of Kentucky fried chicken with Bartel!
While not as overall successful as DEATH RACE 2000, CANNONBALL is brainless, drive-in entertainment and exactly the type of popcorn movie that New World is best known for. Bartel's direction is never boring, as he lays a fine line between silly humor and action film violence (including an incredibly relentless multi-car collision) that makes it more unusual than most efforts of this sort. Lots of slick cars, crashes, explosions, a dry yet winning lead in David Carradine, and an awesome "who's who" supporting cast make this one a pleasurable ride for certain and a definite trash favorite.
CANNONBALL races onto DVD courtesy of Blue Underground with a very nice new transfer. The film has been given anamorphic treatment and is letterboxed at 1.66:1, which is strange since the film's original 1976 pressbook (located in the still gallery) lists it as being the more common 1.85:1. Still, the framing looks pretty good, and given the low-budget nature of this movie, the image is quite solid. The detail is sharp enough, but there is a fine amount of grain in many shots. The colors are stable and black levels appear solid. Three audio tracks are provided: a nicely remixed 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Surround presentation, a Dolby Surround 2.0 track, and the original mono.
Supplements include a featurette entitled "Kicks and Crashes" that includes interviews with David Carradine, Mary Woronov and Roger Corman. Lasting about 10 minutes, Corman only speaks briefly but Carradine expresses how his favorite scene in which he choreographed a fight, and Worvonov tells us about Bartel's frustrations as a filmmaker, as well as an anecdote about filming her driving scenes despite not knwoing how to drive! Also included is the original trailer, three different TV spots and a still gallery that's divided up into sections. An Easter Egg will give you a British TV spot where CANNONBALL (under the title "Carquake") played on a double bill with THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION! (George R. Reis)
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