A look at the Cannonball Run Franchise (1981 – 1989)

An All-Star cast, goofy characters, high-speed car chases, expensive stunts and the odd punch up proves a formidable combination. Over the years this has been tried a number of times to various levels of success. However, none have managed to hit as big as The Cannonball Run series.

The Cannonball Run (1981)

Director: Hal Needham

Cast: Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dean Martin

The Cannonball Run (1981)

Director: Hal Needham

Cast: Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dean Martin

In the early 80’s Burt could do no wrong, his charm sold seats no one else. Smokey and the Bandit and Part II had been big successes so it only seemed right that Hal Needham and Burt go for a hat trick, and why not just try for It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Given the success of Smokey, a slew of stars were happy to appear.

Taking out the Good Old Boy approach, but keeping it evident in the heart of Reynold’s character, grabbing a large portion of the Rat Pac and dropping them in alongside some of the bigger box office names who are game for a laugh. This a party of a film and everyone is having a great time. Most importantly, the audience was too.

The Cannonball Run is based, loosely, on an illegal road race from the ‘70s from the east coast of the United States, to the west. A bunch of colourful characters enters and the film follows the crazy hijinks from several. The characters include a drunk ex-race car driver, an addicted gambler, a Chinese hi-tech team, a pair of busty ladies with an eye for exotic motors, an oil-rich sheik and a millionaire who thinks he is Roger Moore. A slew of well-known faces turn up for cameos and smaller roles.

It’s difficult to point out all the flaws, inherent sexism and lack of morals the fill The Cannonball Run as the whole thing is so much fun and in many ways, the flaws add to the charm. The script feels like a brief guide to what they would be doing each day and most of the actors likely improvised every line. The only time a pen feels like it hit paper was the stunt team working out how to do some of the more hair-raising stunts safely. There is little point delving into story consistency and character development as they are not applicable here.

Burt Reynolds is just Burt Reynolds, everyone loves him, win! Moore is a perfectly realised joke playing an eccentric millionaire who believes he is Roger Moore, cashing in on his James Bond image, win! Dean Martin as an alcoholic womaniser, win! Sammy Davies Jr is a Lounge Lizard Con Man, win! And to round it all off Farrah Fawcett gives a memorable turn as a peace-loving photographer with a hint of crazy. Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman stun and their assets are perfectly exploited for the target audience.

Outcome: A massive gamble, and a massive win!

Cannonball Run II (1984)

Director: Hal Needham

Cast: Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine

Cannonball Run II (1984)

Director: Hal Needham

Cast: Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine

Burt can actually do something wrong. If you took out everything that was funny and original from the first one then left the resulting carcass to its own devices then you have Cannonball Run II. A low point on everyone’s career. A that is A LOT of careers.

It’s quite an impressive maneuver to take something as light and fun as the original Cannonball Run, come up with some admittedly decent ideas and stunts, add some big names and still be completely devoid of fun. Of course, it seems the stars have only been coerced back for some handsome paychecks. Particularly so when you look further down the glamorous line up to find some very low rent names in an attempt to pad it out. Those that did not come back, for example, Roger Moore, obviously felt the joke had run its course.

There is, believe it or not, a plot here. The original had no shame in proving that it was merely a concept dreamed up on a drunken night, but this one shows evidence that someone has actually involved in writing something. It does not work and instead what was a well-edited collection of silly and funny sketches is now a messy narrative with terrible continuity.

Honestly, as a kid, I saw nothing wrong with this. I loved it, much like a cartoon. Purely because Burt was so cool. The Bandit, JJ, Hooper, and Shamus were all top of the pops with me can I just could not get enough of the guy.

Outcome: Cannonball Run II is the lowest point of the series. Where the first one is organized chaos, this sequel is just organized rubbish.

Speed Zone! aka Cannonball Fever aka Cannonball Run 3 (1989)

Director: Jim Drake

Cast:  John Candy, Tim Matheson, Donna Dixon, Joe Flaherty

Speed Zone! aka Cannonball Fever aka Cannonball Run 3 (1989)

Director: Jim Drake

Cast:  John Candy, Tim Matheson, Donna Dixon, Joe Flaherty

This is a little bit of a cheat. Orion tried to make a third Cannonball Run movie and Burt Reynolds turned it down. Instead, the rewrote the movie and called it Speed Zone! (released in the UK as Cannonball Fever.)  It’s not an official sequel and has been released under a number of titles since it’s arrival. However, the similarities are not to be ignored. John Candy’s character is introduced to the audience as he watches the first movie on TV. Confusingly, Jamie Farr returns playing the rich Shiek.

The filmmakers do their best to borrow from the formula that made the first film successful. There is an opening Lamborghini chase. Celebrities queue up to fill the roles and cameos. John Candy takes over what is essentially the Burt Reynolds role. Or does Tim Matheson? At any rate, it’s all there.

Whilst not being anywhere near as much fun as the original Cannonball Run, this one is much more entertaining than the second. It’s been 5 years and the writers has come up with some fresh material. Whilst the cast is hardly brilliant it’s still more than competent to land most of the gags.

Quite a few of the characters are annoying, the Smothers Brothers for example. However, there a re a few winning combinations, Flaherty and Frewer are a good and provide more than their fair share of chuckles, whilst their srosy is uneven and a hamfisted Midnight Run knock off. Matheson and Kuzyk are quite fun with Matheson showing some shades of Otter from Animal House. Candy and Dixon have the most screen time and provide stability for the film to bounce around. I always thought it would have been a spark a brilliance had Burt Reynolds played the Lee Van Cleef role.

However, the gloss just isn’t there. It all feels like it has been filmed over a couple of rainy days in Canada. After the silly Lamborghini chase we are not greeted by some excellent cleavage, no, we get John Scheider who is instantly unlikable and disappears for the rest of the film. Sure that’s a nice nod to The Dukes of Hazzard and perhaps Catherine Bach from the second movies but it’s likely unintentional!

The magic of the stunts from the first two movies are lost. The speedier sequences are not so much race driving as speeded up footage. There is a lack of memorable stunts here too, aside from a preposterous stone skipping Lamborgini and Brooke Sheilds onboard a passenger plane driving down the highway I am struggling to think of any standout moments. One of the only great things about the second movie was the Cannonball theme tune, had they included it here then this would have been twice the movie.

Outcome: Not terrible, a better effort, if a bit of a cheat.

Is that it?

Obviously, The Cannonball Run takes its influence from Erwin Baker and the resulting illegal race that followed his exploits, however, it’s core principles are from ensemble movies that have come before. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Gumball Rally are probably the biggest influences, however, it was Cannonball! (or as it is sometimes known Carquake) that really bears the closest resemblance. In Cannonball! we have a more adult approach with quite a bit more violence. However, this film is maybe a little closer to its predecessor Death Race 2000 when it comes to violence. It certainly isn’t kiddy friendly, despite the who’s who of Police Academy supporting character actors.

The future Jack, the future!

There wasn’t really a Cannonball Run III. The John Candy movie is more than a tribute. The end of the 2nd movie leaves it open for more, however, I’m sure Burt and co. ran screaming from the franchise.

The Cannonball name of interest and there have many been reports over the years, from Guy Ritchie direct a remake with George Clooney to a remake with Burt. Most recently there are whispers that Doug Liman is working on a finalised script. However, he is bust tooling a sequel to Edge of Tomorrow so there will either be a long wait or it’ll have to find some love from someone else.

Best to worst:

  1. The Cannonball Run
  2. Speed Zone!
  3. Cannonball Run II

Conclusion

The Cannonball Run series is a product of the time, even during that period it could never be replicated. Many tried, many failed. Of course, it is best to remember for original and forget the rest, unless you are a die-hard fan. If they return to it, they will have to modernise it and I really can’t imagine it working on any level and it would probably the up some form of lampoon on the Fast and the Furious movies.