The Cannonball Run (1981)

In the early 80’s Burt could do no wrong, his charm sold seats like 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. 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 in The Cannonball Run.

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

Burt Reynolds
Burt Reynolds

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 enter and the film follows the crazy hijinks of several. The characters include a drunk ex-racecar 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 fill The Cannonball Run as the whole thing has so much fun and getting carried away with itself. 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, box office gold, win! Moore is a perfectly realised joke swanning around in Connery’s Aston Martin, 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. 

The film has a very simple format. It takes it’s time to introduce a handful of the characters and this helps to keep things interesting and fresh. Each character has some quirks, but no one is an everyman. If anything the only character that has some grounding is Reynolds as he rolls his eyes and cocks his head when witnessing the crazy surrounding him.
Once this handful of the characters are introduced we are treated to them enjoying an evening out together before the big race the next day. There is a movie right here with the shenanigans of this bunch.

At 35 minutes in the race gets underway with a punch card system.Much has been made about this online and the frantic chase to the corresponding punch card system in the finale. The idea that the writers either didn’t consider this or care about this plothole tickles me.

The next 10 minutes eases us into a gentle race allowing for some cartoonish antics for various racers. With only 15 minutes left does the excitement ramp up as drivers work together in a goofy brawl with an unscrupulous biker gang before they drop everything and make a frenzied dash to the finish line as the theme tune dramatically kicks in.

A lot of the film works thanks to the relatively relaxed nature of the stars and how Needham keeps things light and fluffy. It’s hard to imagine this happening with stars now. Reynolds was a mega star at the time, his closest rival at the box office was Clint Eastwood and there was no chance that Eastwood would drop his guard and do something like this. Moore was at his peak with James Bond pulling in the audiences and a couple of years later he would even outgross Connery’s return in Never Say Never Again. Hal Needham must have used magic to pull this together.

Burt Reynolds Roger Moore
Farrah Fawcett Dom DeLuise
Dean Martin Sammy Davis Jr.
Jack Elam Adrienne Barbeau
Terry Bradshaw Jackie Chan
George Furth

An interesting way to look at it is, this is a film that gives us Burt Reynolds and Dean Martin in a bare knuckle brawl with some bikers. Peter Fonda going face to face with Jackie Chan. Farrah Fawcett romanticizing over trees… and blowing your brains out. Roger Moore being mistaken for George Hamilton and Valerie Perrine dishing out lessons to ladies who use their figures to get ahead in life.

The Cannonball Run isn’t for everyone, in fact it isn’t for most. I have a love for it as I was just the right age to soak this up. A massive gamble, and a massive win!

Despite The Cannonball Run‘s success there doesn’t seem to be too much in the way of promotional poster art, aside from variations over the 55mp speed sign art. Regional alternatives do exist. I have added a few below.


Followed by Cannonball Run II

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