Like the more serious first cousin of Death Race 2000, the Roger Corman/Shaw Brothers co-production Cannonball! reunites that film’s director, Paul Bartel, and hard-driving star, David Carradine, for yet another round of cross-country carmageddon, this time minus the future setting and pedestrian bloodletting.
Based on the real-life outlaw sporting event known as the Cannonball Run, Cannonball! follows several participants daring to make the four-wheeled, trans-American trek from the Santa Monica Pier to New York City for a $100,000 payday. Per the screenplay by Bartel and 1980s megawatt producer Don Simpson (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Flashdance, et al.), the audience is to root for Carradine’s ex-con character of Coy “Cannonball” Buckman, he of the striped Trans-Am, red handkerchief and corrections-officer girlfriend (Veronica Hamel, When Time Ran Out …). His chief rival in the race is the gun-toting good-ol’-boy Redman (Bill McKinney, First Blood), on whom Buckman busts out the kung fu.
Other notable participants include a young and in-love SoCal couple (The Howling’s Belinda Balaski Revenge of the Nerds’ Robert Carradine); a van full of women, driven by Bartel’s frequent co-star, Mary Woronov (Hellhole); and a rotund family man (Carl Gottlieb, Jaws), who cheats by immediately loading his Blazer into a plane and then unloads into his busty mistress (Louisa Moritz, New Year’s Evil). Cameos abound, including Corman as California’s district attorney, Hollywood Boulevard co-directors Joe Dante and Allan Arkush as junkyard gearheads, and as hoods who share a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Martin Scorsese and Sylvester Stallone.
Five years later, the Shaw Brothers’ fiercest Hong Kong studio competitor, Golden Harvest, took the same idea to the bank with the all-star, big-budget The Cannonball Run. But whereas director Hal Needham steered that Burt Reynolds ego vehicle from mere madcap into mental retardation, Bartel keeps Cannonball! on an even keel of action and humor. He even throws in a couple of surprising deaths. Bottom line: It’s a real hubcap-popper that delivers and delivers and delivers. —Rod Lott