Content to pick up where the skid marks from "Smokey and the Bandit II" left off, "The Cannonball Run" quickly establishes itself as an aggressive shambles, the latest exercise in amateurism from facetious professionals.
"Cannonball," now playing at area theaters, was fabricated around the experiences shared by director Hal Needham and writer Brock Yates in the 1979 Cannonball Memorial Trophy Dash, a clandestine cross-country car race. They drove a Dodge van disguised as an ambulance in hopes of deceiving any highway patrolmen who might have questioned their haste. Yates, a former editor of Car and Driver, was instrumental in organizing the race about a decade ago, and it was used as the pretext for an earlier car chase farce, "The Gumball Rally." wNow staged every other year, the event begins at a Darien, Conn., shopping center and concludes at a Redondo Beach, Calif., restaurant. The existing record is slightly under 33 hours at an average speed of 87 mph.
Burt Reynolds, cast as the proprietor of a land-air-sea delivery service, shares a fake ambulance with his chief mechanic, Dom DeLuise, who occasionally fantasizes himself as a comic book caped crusader. Farrah Fawcett, an adorable dimwit, and Jack Elam, a demented proctologist, are recruited to pose as patient and attending physician, respectively.
The hectic opening sequences accord perfunctory introductions to the other competitors, none of whom establishes secure holds on our attention either: Roger Moore as Seymour Goldfarb, the heir to a ladies' undergarment business who imagines himself to be Roger Moore in an Aston Martin; Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. as aging sleazes pretending to be priests, in a red Ferrari; yokels Mel Tillis and Terry Bradshaw in a stock car; sex bombs Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman in a black Lamborghini; Arab sheik Jamie Farr in a white Rolls Royce; daredevil financier Bert Convy and partner Warren Berlinger on a Harley-Davidson; the Hong Kong martial arts stars Jackie Chan and Michael Hui as gibbering Japanese in an experimental, exotically computerized Subaru.
One tends to lose interest during the introductions, since the staging or editing makes everything seem clumsy 2nd abrupt. Obviously, the scenes are meant to be incisively funny and to establish the characters with cartoonish distinctiveness, but the choppy timing undermines the illusion.
As the contestants race across country, we're supposed to be sustained and amused by updates about their run-ins with the police and their evasive maneuvers. The number of entries scatters attention to begin with, and when any element shows signs of promise -- the stirrings of a wistful romantic rapport between Reynolds and Fawcett, for example, or the apparent comic compatibility in the Tillis-Bradshaw and Chan-Hui teams -- you can be certain that the format will kill it by suddenly shifting scenes. Ultimately, you're left with a few funny bits that seem to jump out of the context: a spontaneous takeoff on the Dr. Pepper theme by DeLuise or a slapstick explosion of acrobatic kicks from Chan.
The general air of sloppy-boppy vanity and expendability is summed up when "Cannonball" repeats a specific bad habit from "Smokey II": Needham illustrates the closing credits with discarded themes. Even worse, the principal leitmotif of these outtakes turns out to be Reynolds and Martin playfully slapping sidekicks DeLuise and Davis, respectively. Although the gesture recalls Abbott & Costello at their least ingratiating, it could prove useful in another respect; "The Cannonball Run" was obviously made by people who need to be smacked to their senses