Viking Night: The Cannonball Run

By Bruce Hall

February 11, 2014

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There aren’t a lot of things nastier than a spoiled gallon of milk. Really spoiled, to the point where there are chunks of things floating in it. Living on those chunks are tiny bacteria civilizations, advanced enough to desperately signal as you chuck the horrific mess down the drain and hang a crucifix over the sink. When something is that spoiled, there’s no question - it is your moral imperative to obliterate that kind of stank as thoroughly as possible. So how does one react when a movie goes off like that? Especially when it’s a movie that had me giggling non-stop for almost eight months when I was a kid? How does one feel when a once beloved childhood experience is revealed to be nothing but…chunks?

Last week, we explored one of Burt Reynolds’ most enduring triumphs. Today…we will instead be discussing The Cannonball Run.

Yes, I just compared a movie that made almost five times its budget at the box office to something squeezed out of the world’s laziest animal and left out in the sun for two days. The idea of getting pop culture elite together for a booze fueled (it was a different time), rated PG cross country road race seems like an outstanding idea. Literally the only way to screw it up is if you assume the premise enough, so you forego any semblance of plot for drunk celebrities running around in traffic. So if it’s 1981 and I am a coke-engorged executive at Twentieth Century Fox, I greenlight it. But only if it gets me the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the wife of the Six Million Dollar Man and a middle-aged James Bond. I say yes to this carnival of freaks because I’ve got the director and star of Smokey and the Bandit riding shotgun on this.


I begrudge none of that, because it’s a perfectly legitimate way to make money. It’s just a terrible way to make a movie. Why even bother putting something on film if it isn’t going to be worth watching for as long as film lasts? The Cannonball Run should have been performed once – live – on television and on every network, never to be seen again by anyone. That would have been fine because the plot - what there is of it - is that a group of 1980’s hottest stars and two of Frank Sinatra’s friends get drunk and race each other from Connecticut to California for absolutely no damn reason whatsoever at all. Nothing really happens, nobody really says anything memorable, the stupid race doesn’t even start until 45 minutes into the film and my God does Dean Martin ever look like he’s been drinking gasoline.

For those who find me unfair, I submit to you the fact that The Cannonball Run doesn’t even bother to address anything surrounding the race itself. The movie just kind of starts right in the middle of something, Burt Reynolds winks at the camera, Dom DeLuise wears a cape, I’m pretty sure Jackie Chan kicks Peter Fonda in the face, and Roger Moore is actually pretty cool. But there’s literally no plot, no backstory or motivation for any of the characters, and no explanation of anything that’s happening at any time. If that sounds like nitpicking, remember that even the dumbest stories need to throw you a narrative bone once in a while, just to keep you engaged and interested. The more invested you are in the story, the more effective whatever it is you’re trying to do will be.

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