Don’t judge a book by its cover, but judge a film by how similar it feels to the other projects of its director. Hal Needham stormed into the 1980s with the topics and styles that made him so popular just four years prior. The Cannonball Run doesn’t just feel like Smokey and the Bandit, it has the same riffs, gags and protagonists that cajole and connive as they try and achieve the great, modern American Dream, cash. Dragging Burt Reynolds into his piece once again, the bond between Needham and Reynolds is, apparently, inseparable. If only it were, for the two have not, in hindsight, offered us their best works together. An oddly long-winded take on Wacky Races and a sure piece of inspiration for Rat Race, there is no sign of stopping Needham’s desire to find the funny in the American outlaw.
Challenging humour and awkward, jolty gags are fast, frequent and stated with plain intent. Crossing out the speed limit on a road sign gives leeway for protagonist J.J. McLure to fire his automobile down the roads of Connecticut. Scenic it is not. You would think there’d be some level of charm to the scenery surrounding Reynolds and company, but chance would be a fine thing. When based on real outlaw road races, there is the expectation of comedy crashing into reality, playing up the charms of a real event. That much is attempted, but it is the same, ineffective Redneck approach that shackled Smokey and the Bandit to unlikeable caricatures. At least The Cannonball Run has more of a variety to the characters we can hate.
Captain Chaos is one of those many embarrassing notes. The Cannonball Run is admittedly confident in its comedy, but that does not make it age like fine milk and churn the stomach of those ingesting it in strong doses. Roger Moore should’ve known better than to sign on as Seymour Goldfarb at the height of his James Bond popularity. His first appearance notes more than a handful of sight and sound gags that fall on deaf eyes and ears. With its all-star cast, this feature should hold more to it than sex jokes, sight gags and terrible pop culture references, most of which are now dated and uncomfortably dense. This was the state of comedy at the time, though, more a commentary on the culture that formed such a nonsense film than a capturing of anything that denotes quality.
A mandatory ensemble coaxes light humour out of The Cannonball Run, whose fast pace and freewheeling style is. With many odd moments to it, the real question for Needham and company is simply “why?”. Dean Martin marks his return to filmmaking, dragging a kicking and screaming Sammy Davis Jr. with him for no good reason. Martin decides to hang his hat on The Cannonball Run and its sequel. A bold choice indeed. One not worth questioning. It is a film barely worth watching, let alone pondering on. Many problems and issues pave the way, but the leading issue for Needham’s venture into the 1980s is the same difficulty Smokey and the Bandit had. It’s just not funny.