Cannonball (1976)

Cannonball is why I watch movies.

It stars a cast of people that honestly, only someone like me would care about, and it’s made by people just as colorful, a crew of folks that would go on to dominate the film industry after emerging from the Roger Corman film cycle. It’s everything great about Cannonball Run, but both more serious and ridiculous, sometimes within the very same scene.

This is everything I want to watch.

Much like the aforementioned Cannonball Run, as well as Speed Zone and The Gumball Rally, this movie was inspired by Erwin G. “Cannonball” Baker, who raced across the United States several times and by the race named after him, the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. This illegal cross-continent road race was started by Car and Driver editor Brock Yates to protest the 55 MPH speed limit.

David Carradine plays Coy “Cannonball” Buckman, who has just been released from serving time for the death of a girl while he was driving drunk. He’s been entered into the illegal Los Angeles to New York City Trans-America Grand Prix in the hopes that he can get his racing career restarted.

That’s because Modern Motors has promised a contract to either him or his arch-rival Cade Redman (Bill McKinney, Deliverance, First Blood). Meanwhile, Coy has to somehow convince his lover/parole officer Linda Maxwell (Veronica Hamel, When Time Ran Out) to allow him to race.

Redman doesn’t have it easy either — his expenses are being paid by Sharma Capri (Judy “The Ozark Nightingale” Canova, who hosted her own national radio show from 1942 to 1955) and client, country singer Perman Waters (Gerrit Graham, amazing as always, just like he is in Terrorvision and Phantom of the Paradise).

Other racers include:

  • Young lovers Jim Crandell (Robert Carradine, Revenge of the Nerds) and Maryann (Belinda Balaski, every Joe Dante movie), who take her daddy’s Corvette and enter the race
  • Terry McMillan (Carl Gottlieb, one of the writers of Jaws!), a middle-aged man driving a Chevrolet Blazer
  • Beutell, who has taken a Lincoln Continental from a kindly old and rich couple and promised to get it to New York City safely
  • A tricked out van driven by three waitresses — Sandy (Mary Woronov you have my heart), Ginny (stuntwoman Glynn Rubin) and Wendy (Diane Lee Hart, The Giant Spider Invasion)
  • German driver Wolfe Messer (James Keach, Sunburst) in a De Tomaso Pantera
  • Zippo (Archie Hahn, who was one of the Juicy Fruits in Phantom of Paradise), who is Coy’s best friend and drives a Pontiac Trans Am just like his buddy.

What Coy doesn’t know is that his brother Bennie (Dick Miller) has bet that he will win and will do anything to ensure that happens, including killing Messer. Meanwhile, McMillan has his car — and mistress Louisa (Louisa Moritz, Myra from Death Race 2000) — flown to the finish line. 

Redman kicks Perman — who becomes a big country star when his song about the race takes off — and Sharma out of his car, but in his final battle with Coy, a piece of Perman’s guitar gets stuck in the gas pedal and he dies in a big crash. While all this is going on, Zippo is in the lead, so Bennie sends out a hitman to off him. Coy had put his girl in that car as he felt it was safer — actually it was Zippo who did the drink driving and Coy covered for his friend — but a major crash ensues and Linda is taken to the hospital by Jim and Maryann.

Terry and Louisa arrive first at the finish line, but Louisa accidentally tells the judges that they flew most of the way. The girls in the van get lost and crash, while Coy makes it to the finish line. Just before he’s about to win, he learns Linda is in the hospital and races off to see her. This leaves his brother to be killed by gangster Lester Marks (Paul Bartel, who also directed the film) and his men (Sylvester Stallone makes a cameo, as does Martin Scorsese, as mafioso). 

Jim and Maryann win the race and the $100,000, while Coy gets his racing contract and the girl, and Beutell delivers the now destroyed Lincoln to its owners.

Other actors who show up for the madness are John Herzfeld (who was in Cobra and wrote and directed the films Escape Plan: The Extractors and 2 Days In the Valley), Patrick Wright (Wicked Wicked, Caged HeatGraduation Day), future directors and at the time Corman assistants/editors Allan Arkush (Rock ‘n Roll High School) and Joe Dante (more movies than I can name, all of them wonderful), Roger Corman himself as a District Attorney, Jonathan Kaplan (director of White Line FeverThe Accused and The Student Teachers), Aron Kincaid (who was the voice of the Iron Sheik and Bobby Heenan on Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling and Killer Croc on Batman: The Animated Series), Joseph McBride (writer of Rock ‘n Roll High School), Read Morgan (The Car), John Alderman (New Year’s Evil) and even superproducer Don Simpson, who co-write the movie with Bartel. This movie is what happens when everyone working for Corman at the time all gets together so the budget can have extras.

Paul Bartel did not enjoy making this film because he felt he was being typecast as an action director. But after he only made $5,000 after spending a year of his life making Death Race 2000, it was the only kind of movie people wanted from him. “Corman had drummed into me the idea that if Death Race 2000 had been harder and more real it would have been more popular. Like a fool, I believed him.”

Bartel wasn’t a fan of cars and racing, so he loaded the movie with cameos and character gimmicks. His favorite scene was when he plays the piano and sings while two gangsters beat up Dick Miller. And the end is pretty rough for a movie that’s so funny, so star David Carradine tried to talk to Bartel about how disturbing he intended it to be.

When Joe Bob Briggs did his How Rednecks Saved Hollywood show, he mentioned that this movie destroys The Cannonball Run. As always, he was right.

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