I recently found myself facing down yet another Roger Corman classic with "Cannonball." Hmmm. I'm starting to detect a troubling pattern here. Every time I turn around, it seems like I'm popping another Corman disc into the DVD player. What gives? It probably has a lot to do with the fact that I'm trying to watch as many b-movie clunkers as possible before shuffling off this mortal coil. Too, I consider it my mission in life--at least at this point in my life--to review as many of these things as possible in order to warn the unwary what to expect should they find themselves stuck in a b-movie situation. What happens if you, a filmgoer only familiar with big budget studio releases that play in thousands of theaters across the country on opening night, should wind up watching a Roger Corman film? Maybe your boss loves these sorts of movies and you want to suck up for a raise. Maybe someone you want to impress has an insatiable craving for crud cinema. If so, I feel sorry for you. You'll have to give up repeated viewings of "Cold Mountain" in order to watch Troma flicks and Italian horror movies. Seek counseling immediately. Maybe you can find a new job and/or new friends.
Before losing all hope, however, you might want to test the waters with "Cannonball." It's not a bad film, actually, although it doesn't have the mega-stars found in the "Cannonball Run" films, two movies that also take as their central premise a cross-country car race. In this picture, directed by cult movie god Paul Bartel, David Carradine stars as Coy "Cannonball" Buckman, a down on his luck ex-con looking to break into the big time by winning the biggest road race of them all. Problem is, Buckman isn't supposed to spend any time behind the wheel thanks to the terms of his parole. Yeah right. Trying to keep a guy like Coy away from souped up jalopies is like trying to keep a fat woman away from chocolate ice cream. Nonetheless, his sexy parole officer Linda Maxwell (Veronica Hamel slumming for a paycheck) tries hard to keep her charge out of trouble. But Buckman is going to race, bet your bottom dollar, no matter what the cost. His older brother needs his help, and Coy needs to feel those miles melting off the highway if even for a few hours. With the assistance of his trusty sidekick Zippo (Archie Hahn) and the unwilling participation of Maxwell, Coy Buckman heads west from California to New York at a thousand miles an hour.
Of course every racing film needs a cast of crackpots driving the other cars, and in this "Cannonball" provides plenty of oddballs trying to make their own mark in the race. We've got Coy's snarling archnemesis Cade Redman (Bill McKinney) dragging along country singer Perman Waters (Gerrit Graham) for some inexplicable reason. We've got ultrahot cutie Mary Woronov driving a van full of babes. We've got a European snob named Wolfe Messer (James Keach) busting everyone's chops in the fastest car. We've got a touchy feely young couple, Jim Crandell (Robert Carradine) and his woman Maryann (Belinda Balaski), zipping along in the hopes that the reward money will give them a start in life. There is also the inevitable chap who thinks he'll win by cheating and a black guy racing in a town car that doesn't even belong to him. Just in case the cast of loonies fails to keep you entertained, Bartel himself shows up as a piano-tinkling mobster who is pulling some crooked tricks behind the scenes. What follows is typical in the crash 'em smash 'em genre: lots of fiery wrecks, down and dirty tricks, a few fistfights, romance, and a keep 'em guessing ending. The only thing "Cannonball" is missing is Burt Reynolds and Jackie Gleason.
This movie offers us nothing we haven't seen in other films. While it is superior to Corman's other racing films, namely Ron Howards's "Grand Theft Auto" and "Eat My Dust," it isn't as much fun as "Death Race 2000." That movie, also lensed by Bartel and containing much of the same cast as "Cannonball," possessed many things lacking here. "Death Race" was more violent, the cars were "futuristic" and therefore cheesier, and the underlying plot more interesting. There isn't much of a plot in this movie once you get beyond the Coy Buckman character. He went to jail after taking the fall for his friend Zippo, and now he wants to race in order to restore his former glory. The idea that his brother is working behind the scenes to save himself from the clutches of Bartel's gangster character forces our hero to make a painful choice when he finally discovers the nasty truth behind the race. Or something sappy like that. Did I mention lots of stuff blows up and a few people die in fiery wrecks? Good, because that's likely the only thing you will take away from "Cannonball." Thank goodness Corman moved on to ripping off other types of genre films shortly after this picture came out.
The DVD is pretty much what one expects with a Roger Corman release. Included for your viewing pleasure are a trailer for the film, television spots, and a poster and still gallery. Interviews with Mary Woronov, Corman, and David Carradine add a bit of backstory to the production. For example, Woronov explains that she didn't know how to drive, so Bartel and company had to shoot all of her scenes in close up lest she kill everyone involved. I recommend "Cannonball" to Corman completists and car racing film aficionados, but all others should probably stick to the corny "Cannonball Run" pictures. Not that they're any better, mind you, but they are a cut above this film in some respects.