(Second viewing, On DVD, September 2017) It’s funny what we remember from our childhood. Watching The Cannonball Run, which I last saw as a young boy in the early eighties, I had regular flashes of recognition or anticipation as I suspected what was about to happen. Of course, I’m not an eight-year-old boy any more, and my current liking of the film’s stunts and cultural references is somewhat tempered by its juvenile tone and wildly uneven script. Legendary action director Hal Needham knew how to direct stunts (there’s a pointed reference to his Smokey and the Bandit that reminds me that I should re-watch that one soon), and so the best moments of the film are the chases, fights and other action hijinks. A young-looking Jackie Chan brings a bit of his patented style to a desert brawl, and the film also features such legends as Burt Reynolds, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Roger Moore (hilariously riffing on his James Bond turn), Peter Fonda, Farrah Fawcett and Adrienne Barbeau (I did remember their outfits) in various roles. I can still recognize some of those references by dint of having been born in the 1970s, but I wonder what younger viewers will make of them. Some of the comedy still works—I’m specifically thinking about the monologue explaining the rules of the transcontinental Cannonball Run, delivered with practised confidence by Brock Yates, the creator of the real-life Cannonball Run. Alas, this action/comedy charge is seriously hampered by the puerile humour (much of it sexist or racist) and uneven scripting. I strongly disliked Dom Deluise’s character(s), for instance, and gritted my teeth at the stereotypes passing off as jokes: seeing notorious Hong Kong native Jackie Chan cast as a Japanese makes no sense, and let’s really not talk about the middle-eastern Sheikh character. That’s not even getting close to the heavily sexist tone of the film—this is a film by boys for boys, and while I’d argue that there’s a place for cleavage-revealing spandex outfits in racing movies, much of the rest of the film (which plays off drug-facilitated kidnapping for laughs and sexiness, among many other things) is more off-putting than anything else. Add to that some primitive anti-government sentiments (as party-poopers) and you get the picture. For all that I like about the stunts in the film, The Cannonball Run is one of those intriguing but flawed movies that should be prime candidates for a polished remake. I promise I won’t complain too much as long as the worst issues with the original are corrected.
(On TV, August 2017) I may have made a mistake in watching Escape from L.A. a few weeks ago, before seeing the original Escape from New York. Both films do run against very similar lines, after all: juvenile bad guys sent under duress in a forbidden zone to get someone back, but so anti-authority that they end up rebelling at some point. Escape from L.A. apes the first film almost plot point per point, down to the lunacy of some sequences. But while you would think that watching the first one so soon after the second would lower my appreciation of the first one, the reverse ended up happening: it only made me dislike the second one even more. I recognize that you can’t really blame the first for the excesses of the second. But more to the point, the first one is simply better-executed in the constraints of its formula. Never mind that the premise of turning Manhattan Island in a prison is nonsensical: the point here is putting up a backdrop for dystopian action. Peak-era Adrienne Barbeau is always welcome, but Kurt Russell is most remarkable as Snake Plissken, first in a series of likable rogues that he’d get to play for the rest of his career. The entire film has an edge of writer/director John Carpenter’s inspired lunacy to it, from strange set pieces to audacious set design to unconventional characters to sometimes-shocking moments (such as the president going full-crazy near the climax). Escape from New York does have its annoyances, and those do mirror those of its sequel: the oh-so-cool protagonist with an attitude that mostly appeals to teenagers; the nihilistic conclusion; the moronic elements of its premise; the tiring nature of its post-apocalyptic chic. But seeing Escape from New York at a time when (say) The Walking Dead is practically mainstream TV must be very different from seeing Escape from New York in 1981. It may not be fresh by today’s standards, but it’s easy to respect its place as a film that influenced many others. I still won’t forgive the sequel, though.