By the time The Cannonball Run was released, former stuntman Hal Needham was no stranger to the camera. He had already directed several films, including Smokey and the Bandit, and collaborated with Cannonball leading man Burt Reynolds three times. Despite this experience though, Hal Needham is little more than a “point-and-shoot” director. On a technical level, he regularly fails to make the most out of the resources he has available, using the camera to capture visuals but rarely to elicit emotional responses from the audience. Still, a bit of laziness behind the camera is more than made up for by an entertaining script and excellent performances by a dynamite cast.
J.J. McClure (Burt Reynolds), Victor Prinzim (Dom DeLuise), and Victor’s alter-ego “Captain Chaos”, enter the infamous Cannonball Run, a dangerous, highly illegal race in which hundreds of drivers speed cross-country in hopes of being the first to reach California. Choosing an ambulance as their mode of transportation (a wise move considering cops are out in abundance), the two friends hire a doctor, kidnap an eco-activist to use as their patient in the event that they’re pulled over, and hit the road.
The film takes a little while to “start its engines”, so to speak. The first fifteen or twenty minutes are comprised of clunky, disjointed introductory segments which serve to familiarize the audience with the idiosyncratic characters. These cannonballers, including Roger Moore, Jackie Chan, and Adrienne Barbeau, are great to watch, but though they’re intended to be the main competitors, they feel more like extended cameos and rarely interact with, or represent any real threat to, Reynolds and DeLouise. Gimmicks though these appearances may be, they provide a lot of humor. Moore plays Seymour Goldfarb, Jr., a womanizing, Aston Martin-driving actor known for his roles in spy movies (particularly The Fly Who Bugged Me), and is accompanied by a song that sounds so much like the James Bond theme, it borders on copyright infringement. The joke runs throughout the movie, but just when it’s starting to feel like it has overstayed its welcome, the writers manage to make it fresh and funny again.
That’s one of the great things about The Cannonball Run. There are a lot of extended jokes that, just as they’re losing their effectiveness, manage to refresh themselves by introducing something new. This results in a very funny, if not terribly intelligent, movie.
The performances are hilarious, but the true standout is Dom DeLouise, whose mild-mannered Prinzim finds courage by donning a cape and mask to become the crime-fighting, dog-saving Captain Chaos! In a film filled with two-dimensional characters, Delouise’s is the most interesting. A brief attempt is made at giving McClure a little more depth, but these efforts seem shallow and secondary to the action and comedy of the rest of the film. In fact, throughout the course of The Cannonball Run, not one of the characters grows in any discernable way. Although in most films it would be problematic for characters to end their journey in the same developmental state in which they began it, it’s easier to overlook in comedies than in other genres. The Cannonball Run is no exception, and while the movie may have benefited from more fleshed-out characters, the humor provides enough entertainment value to make The Cannonball Run worth watching.
Dr. Nikolas Van Helsing: I’m Nikolas Van Helsing, professor of proctology and other related tendencies. A graduate of the University of Rangoon. And assorted night classes at the Knoxville Tennessee school of faith healing.
J.J. McClure: You may be a little overqualified for this job.
Victor Prinzim: J.J., there are two priests in that car. They want us to pull over.
J.J. McClure: Victor, that’s two priests driving a Ferrari. When’s the last time you saw two priests drive a Ferrari? What are they doing, taking home the bingo money?
Victor Prinzim: No, they’re doing the work of the Lord. In a Ferrari, they can just do it faster.
Recommended Viewing: Rat Race, Smokey and the Bandit