Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Film Review: CANNONBALL! aka CARQUAKE (1976, Paul Bartel)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Tag-line: "The annual Trans-American outlaw road race– a cross-country demolition derby without rules!"
Notable Cast or Crew:  David Carradine (DEATH RACE 2000, CIRCLE OF IRON), Robert Carradine (REVENGE OF THE NERDS, BODY BAGS), Mary Woronov (ROCK N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, DEATH RACE 2000), Paul Bartel (EATING RAOUL, THE USUAL SUSPECTS), Dick Miller (GREMLINS, THE TERMINATOR), Gerrit Graham (USED CARS, THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE), Veronica Hamel (HILL STREET BLUES, HERE COME THE MUNSTERS), Bill McKinney (DELIVERANCE, EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE), Joe Dante (director of EERIE, INDIANA, GREMLINS), James Keach (Stacy's brother, FM, THE LONG RIDERS), Carl Gottlieb (writer of JAWS and THE JERK), Stanley Bennett Clay (ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, CLEOPATRA JONES), Louis Moritz (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, NEW YEAR'S EVIL).  Written by Bartel and Don Simpson (co-producer of THE ROCK, BAD BOYS, TOP GUN, FLASHDANCE).  Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE SIXTH SENSE).
Best One-liner:  In lieu of a one-liner, just imagine a car exploding.

After the success of DEATH RACE 2000, Roger Corman and New World Pictures wanted another car picture out of auteur/performer Paul Bartel, and so he submitted to them a project that would have been completely wonderful and astounding called... "FRANKENCAR."

Corman wouldn't spring for it, though, wanting something a little cheaper and more mainstream, especially in comparison to DEATH RACE 2000, whereupon men and women in cars that looked like dragons and cattle and gatling guns ran over pedestrians for sport.  Corman wanted a standard cross-country racing movie, and Bartel, deep in depression, feared he would be pigeonholed as an action director.  Despite it all, he grudgingly delivered his "car movie."

I put off watching CANNONBALL! for years, having heard mostly bad things and not wanting to tarnish my memories of DEATH RACE 2000.  However, having just seen it, I am happy to report that CANNONBALL! is great.  The material has been adequately Bartel-ized; it's dark, hilarious, insane, and it ends with a senseless pileup of cascading explosions that truly must be seen to be believed.

 Due to the final scenes alone, CANNONBALL! may very well have more per capita explosions than most Michael Bay movies, truly earning its alternate title of "CARQUAKE."  It's a fun, dumb, fast-paced time, and here are my nine favorite things about it:

#1.  The cross-country race/tournament aspect.  A forerunner to CANNONBALL RUN in title and content, I've always enjoyed movies that feature a motley crew of characters competing against each other for some zany prize.  Maybe it just reminds me of BLOODSPORT.  Would that make this not a kumite, but a carmite?

#2.  David Carradine.  In DEATH RACE 2000, they put him in a gimp costume and called him "Frankenstein."

That was pretty good.  Here, they tough him up by slipping him in moccasins and a salmon pink hoodie, with a bandana tied around his neck like an ascot.   
"Huh?" you ask.  "Hush up and just go with it," I say.

#3.  Robert Carradine.

The moral center of our film, pre-'REVENGE,' nerdy Carradine is likable and fun, hanging out with his girlfriend Belinda Balaski (a likable Joe Dante crony who's been in over a dozen of his films).  They're the classic "nice guys finish last" underdog team.

#4.  Mary Woronov.

It ain't a Bartel flick without Woronov!  In the past, I've referred to the two of them as the "demented 70s and 80s versions of Tracey and Hepburn."  She filmed all her scenes in one day and was reportedly miserable doing so (she didn't know how to drive a car, so they only used cutaways), but as the leader of a trio of waitresses who are tooling around in a van, she provides the proper spunk and bitchiness that this film needs.

I especially appreciate that she's busting shit up and driving through prefabricated homes... before the race even begins!


#5.  The bizarre Yokel-mobile.  Here goes: one single car in the race plays home to Gerrit Graham ("Beef" from PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) who's a successful country western star appropriately plucking an acoustic guitar throughout;

Judy Canova, notorious Old Hollywood yodeler and comedienne (this was her final film role); and Bill McKinney (Ned Beatty's rapist in DELIVERANCE!)

who is the central villain of the piece, a hateful asshole-type who is a hateful asshole merely for the sake of being a hateful asshole.  (Character motivation be damned!)

#6.  James Keach (Stacy's brother).

Here he delivers a ludicrous, one-note performance as a pipe-chomping German driver named Wolfe Messer who is always saying subtle German-y things like "YOU DUMMKOPF!"

#7.  Dick Miller.

Fulfilling the "it's technically not a movie from 70s if Dick Miller's not in it" rule, Dick Miller appears as Carradine's desperate gambler brother.  He gives a solid, typically Miller-ish performance, and I especially applaud the balls of casting him as Carradine's brother in a movie that already features Carradine's real-life half-brother.

#8.  Paul Bartel.

He casts himself as a priggish, turtleneck-addicted criminal kingpin who communicates to his cronies from behind a piano, singing fake Cole Porter.  Sounds about right.

#9.  A surprise appearance by Martin Scorsese and Sylvester Stallone as mobster associates of Bartel's character, who (very) briefly appear in a brief hangout session, eating KFC.


Four stars.

–Sean Gill


Mike Bradley said...

You had me right away with the 'follow-up to Death Race 2000' angle, then raised the stakes to absolutely-can't-miss levels by introducing the Gerrit Graham factor, then completely blew the doors off with the surprise Stallone/Scorcese cameos (I listed Stallone first because of course I did!). Suffice to say, I'll be watching this. Soon! Thanks for this as always, now I'm eagerly looking forward to the next entry in this Dick Miller mini-series!

Sean Gill said...


Glad you enjoyed! The Gerrit Graham factor should never be underestimated; you throw in David Carradine with a bandana ascot, and you're good to go.