The Cannonball Run (1981, Twentieth Century Fox) is a Camp (style)y, slapstick comedy movie released in 1981 that starred Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Dom DeLuise and Farrah Fawcett. Hal Needham was the director and had an uncredited role as an Emergency medical technician. The premise is very similar to the earlier Cannonball (film) and The Gumball Rally (both 1976). It also has two sequels, 1984's Cannonball Run II and 1989's Speed Zone! The latter was also known as Cannonball Fever and is sometimes overlooked as being part of the series.
Reynolds plays has-been race car driver J.J. McClure, and playing his mild-mannered mechanic counterpart, Victor Prinzi, is DeLuise (with a superhero alter ego, Captain Chaos, always waiting in the wings). Together, they participate in the Cannonball Run in an Ambulance--a heavily modified Dodge Tradesman van which, incidentally, was the same vehicle driven by director Hal Needham during the running of the real Cannonball. In an attempt to appear legitimate to Law enforcement, Victor hires Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing, a frightening, goofy (yet loveable) Physician of questionable skill played by Jack Elam. They kidnap attractive young photographer, Pamela Glover (Farrah Fawcett)--who later in the film earns the nickname "Beauty"--to be their cover patient. Though Beauty vehemently opposes at first, she eventually warms to the idea of being a participant in the race and to her unlikely "captors."
The movie is based on the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, an actual cross-country rally from the Red Ball Garage in New York City (later Darien, CT) to the pier at Redondo Beach, California organized by automotive journalist and the movie's screenwriter Brock Yates. Some of the more interesting aspects of the movie based on real life include the 'ambulance' entry, the 'borrowed car whose owner does not want it above 75 mph entry,' and the 'all female entry'.
Race teams have gathered in Connecticut to start their cross-country race. One at a time, teams drive up to the starters' stand, punch a time card to indicate their time of departure, then take off.
Among the teams are:
- J.J. McClure and Victor Prinzi, driving a souped-up but otherwise authentic Dodge Tradesman Ambulance
- Former open-wheel icon (and Scotch-swilling) Jamie Blake (Dean Martin), and his teammate Morris Fenderbaum (Sammy Davis, Jr.), dressed as Catholic priests and driving a red Ferrari 308 GTS.
- Jill Rivers (Tara Buckman) and Marcie Thatcher (Adrienne Barbeau), two knockout women driving a black Lamborghini Countach
- Jackie Chan and Michael Hui as drivers of a high-tech, computer-laden Subaru GL 4WD hatchback with a rocket engine
- A pair of rednecks played by Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis driving a street-legal replica of Donnie Allison's 1980s NASCAR Pro-Am stock car,
- Roger Moore playing the delusional Seymour Goldfarb, Jr., (heir to the 'Goldfarb Girdle Family Fortune') who believes that he is Roger Moore in a silver Aston Martin DB5.
- Jamie Farr portraying a Middle-Eastern Sheik driving a white Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow
At the starting line, observing from the shadows, is Mr. Arthur J. Foyt (a play on the name of racer A. J. Foyt), a representative of an unnamed federal agency who tries to stop the race because of its environmental effects and safety issues. In the car with him is Pamela Glover.
Shortly after they leave the starting line, J.J. and Victor (driving their ambulance) come across Foyt and Glover, who have been involved in a minor fender-bender. Glover implores J.J. and Victor to help, but when they tell Foyt to enter the ambulance through the back door, they Kidnap Glover and take off without Foyt.
As the race progresses, various teams are shown either evading law enforcement, most of which deal with talking their way out of a possible ticket, or concocting crazy schemes to outmaneuver their opponents.
- Jill and Marcie use Sex appeal as their weapon, unzipping their race suits to display copious amounts of cleavage. (it fails once when they were stopped by a female police officer, played by an uncredited Valerie Perrine, who shows ample cleavage herself)
- In New Jersey, the ambulance is pulled over by state troopers; Dr. Van Helsing drugs Glover (by now being referred to as "Beauty"), and J.J. and Victor are able to convince the troopers that they're rushing "the Senator's wife" to UCLA for medical treatment (offering the theory that Beauty's condition prevents them from flying, or from even driving through Denver).
- The Subaru team is able to turn off their car's headlights and use infrared sensors for racing at night.
- Seymour Goldfarb is frequently shown evading police by using various James Bond-type gadgets (such as oil slicks, smoke screens, etc.) installed in his Aston Martin DB5.
- Mr. Compton and "Super Chief" Finch disguise themselves as a newlywed couple on a motorbike, but Finch's extra weight forces the two to ride cross-country in a permanent Wheelie.
The primary rivalry in the film is between the teams in the ambulance and the Ferrari. In Ohio, Fenderbaum and Blake are able to convince Victor to pull over their ambulance in order to bless the patient on board. While Blake carries out the blessing, Fenderbaum lets the air out of the ambulance's rear tires. Later, in Missouri, as the ambulance pulls out of a gas station, the Ferrari comes screaming in behind it; J.J. gets his revenge by convincing a nearby police officer that the two men dressed as priests are actually sex perverts who are responsible for the flashing victim in the ambulance.
Meanwhile, Foyt, with the help of his government agency, is able to set up a Roadblock and catch several teams (though none of the "major" teams featured in the movie).
Similar scenes continue to build up to the conclusion of the movie. The remaining teams find themselves stopped on a desert highway, next to a roadside market, waiting for construction work to clear the road ahead of them. While waiting, a biker gang (led by Peter Fonda) shows up and begins harassing Compton and Finch. The harassing quickly gets out of hand and a free-for-all ensues with everyone getting in on the fight. Naturally the Subaru team (Jackie Chan puts his martial arts skills to work) and the remaining teams join in the massive fight. In the middle of the fight, the construction crew announces that the road is open, and the teams sprint back to their cars for the final race to the finish.
The ambulance falls behind the rest of the pack, until Victor changes into his super-hero Alter-ego Captain Chaos. The vehicles all arrive at the finish line's parking lot at the same time, and it's a foot race to the finish line (why it's so important to be first to the clock when everyone clocked in at different times to start the race is left unexplained). In the sprint, J.J. hands off his team's time card to Victor, then ambushes the remaining racers, leaving only Victor and one of the Lamborghini women. Just when it appears Victor will reach the time clock first, a scream rings out, and a spectator shouts that her "baby" has fallen into the water. Victor, still in his Captain Chaos persona, quits the race and rushes to save the baby (later revealed to be the woman's dog), allowing Marcie to clock in first.
Cannonball Run featured an all-star cast, including:
- Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise co-star as racer J.J. McClure and his buddy, mechanic Victor Prinzi. Victor occasionally slips into his character of Captain Chaos during the film.
- Farrah Fawcett also co-stars as tree-loving photographer Pamela Glover.
- Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. play aging former race car driver Jamie Blake and scam artist Morris Fenderbaum, disguised as Catholic priests, driving a Ferrari. Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder plays their bookie.
- George Furth plays Arthur J. Foyt. Despite sharing a name with racing legend A. J. Foyt, Foyt is an anti-automobile fanatic who tries to have the race stopped. Instead, he winds up in a number of hilarious predicaments. No one seems to remember his name at first, and are usually reminded a second later ("Mr., Uh..." "Foyt!")
- Roger Moore plays Seymour Goldfarb, Jr. as a self-parody of his role as James Bond. Goldfarb is a character who thinks he's Roger Moore and who therefore stylizes himself as James Bond. His car, an Aston Martin DB5 displaying the UK registration plate 6633 PP is the one in the original Bond films Goldfinger (film) and Thunderball (film). The original UK registration plate was BMT 216A before being sold to businessman Gavin Keyzar. Molly Picon portrays his mother, who referred to her son "as if he were some Goy movie star named Roger Moore". Also, one of the many women that rode with him in the car mistook him for George Hamilton (actor). Another of the women was played by model Lois Hamilton, billed as Lois Areno.
- Jackie Chan plays Jackie Chan, the driver of the Japanese entry, a Subaru that was constantly getting lost despite all the high-tech gadgetry aboard. Michael Hui played the Japanese engineer and navigator. The host of the talk show that they appear on is played by Johnny Yune.
- Jamie Farr appears as Shiek Abdul ben Falafel, a wealthy Arab determined to win the race even if he has to buy it. Bianca Jagger makes a brief appearance as his sister. Farr's racer is a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. This character is the only one to appear in all three films in the Cannonball Run movie continuum.
- David Searle (uncredited) and Donald Smith (uncredited) play Ron and John, the two are minor characters who appear in the crowd of drunk people celebrating the start of the race. They appear again at the end of the movie in the crowd that welcomes the winner.
- Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis are Mel and Terry, a couple of "good ol' boys" driving a thinly-disguised Chevrolet Malibu NASCAR stocker painted like Donnie Allison's NASCAR racer from 1979.
- Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman appeared as Marcie and Jill, Spandex-clad "hotties" in a black Lamborghini Countach. That same Lamborghini was used in the opening credits of the movie as it was being pursued (unsuccessfully) by a Nevada Highway Patrol car. Valerie Perrine has an uncredited role as a state trooper who successfully stops the duo later in the film (as the only female officer to pull over the duo, she was immune to their feminine wiles). (Though their character names were not mentioned during the story, they are mentioned in the end credits. Their character names, however, *are* mentioned in the sequel, though the parts were re-cast)
- Peter Fonda had a cameo role reprising his character in Easy Rider. The appearance of Fonda and his motorcycle gang during a halt in the race caused by a road closure was the perfect excuse to cut Chan loose in a Kung-fu fight sequence. Fonda's big, bald biker buddy is played by Robert Tessier.
- Bert Convy played wealthy but bored executive Bradford Compton who planned to run the Cannonball by motorcycle with the help of an old friend, Shakey Finch (played by Warren Berlinger), once the world's greatest cross-country motorcyclist. The two planned to disguise themselves as newlyweds, presumably to try and make themselves appear legitimate. However, his friend had gained a great deal of weight over the years forcing them to ride a "Wheelie" all the way across the continent.
- Jack Elam appears as creepy Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing. Van Helsing is based on the name of the famous vampire hunter, and his behavior seems to reference cliché, low-budget horror.
- Rick Aviles and Alfie Wise play Mad Dog and Batman, the tow truck drivers who jump the train flatcar.
- John Fiedler appears as the desk clerk who asks for J.J. and Victor's help when Mr. Foyt gets run over in the lobby.
- Joe Klecko plays the Polish driver in the van who gets pulled over by Mr. Foyt.
- Brock Yates, the creator of the real-life Cannonball Run, plays the organizer of the race who lays down the rules at the starting line.
- Director Hal Needham appears uncredited as the ambulance EMT in the back of the real ambulance with J.J. and Victor at the start of the film.
The film continued director Hal Needham's tradition of showing Bloopers during the closing credits (a practice he started with the Smokey and the Bandit films). Jackie Chan says it was this film that inspired him to do the same at the end of most of his movies.
- A scene where the ambulance is stopped by law enforcement for speeding to California since the patient was "unable to fly" is based on an actual ploy used in the real-life Cannonball race in 1979.
- With this movie Jackie Chan tried to break into the American market once again, but failed. The mainstream Western market wasn't ready for Hong Kong action movies yet.
- Jackie Chan is seen watching a porno film on his TV built inside his car. The film shown is the Marilyn Chambers classic Behind the Green Door.
- Although the movie script describes Jackie Chan and Michael Hui as Japanese, they spoke Cantonese (linguistics) during the whole movie. The only time that we hear Japanese language is when the Japanese TV show presenter is interviewing these two characters. It is also apparent during this scene that the Japanese TV presenter cannot understand what Jackie's character is saying when he addresses the audience in Cantonese, which is presumably part of the movie rather than an incredibly glaring oversight.
- The opening sequence showing the famous 20th Century Fox logo was specially animated for the movie. It starts normally, but then an unseen crash takes out one of the spotlights and winds the fanfare music down. A rally racer zooms around the front of the logo and parks inside the "zero." A police cruiser then zooms around, crashing into two more spotlights in the process. The anthropomorphic rally racer peeks out from it hiding place, looks around, then beeps his amusement[?] and laughs in Reynolds' high-pitched "trademark" laugh.
- The characters of JJ and Victor bear close resemblances of the comedy team Abbott and Costello, almost down to likenesses (when JJ delivers the line, when discussing Captain Chaos: "When you don't want him, he's around, when you want him, he's not around!", he sounds very much like Bud Abbott)
- The stop-motion animated series Robot Chicken once featured a segment parodying race movies called "3 Fast 3 Furious", in which Reynolds and DeLuise cameoed as the voices for look-alike characters in a nod to their Cannonball Run roles. The episode specifically parodied Cannonball Run director Hal Needham's trademark of running a blooper reel alongside ending credits; in this case, the bloopers were animated clips set to multiple takes of DeLuise flubbing one of his lines.
- Needham's end-titles blooper reels inspired Jackie Chan to adopt the same practice for his subsequent movies.
- Dom DeLuise's character, Victor Prinzi, is named after Vic Prinzi, a friend and former college football teammate of Burt Reynolds at Florida State University.
- The movie contains several references to one of Burt Reynolds other hits, Smokey and the Bandit also directed by Hal Needham.
- In one scene, Reynolds, when trying to decide on a form of transport, considers that they "...could get a black Trans-Am", before deciding that "...nah, that's been done".
- One of the racers is driving a black Trans Am and is wearing the "Bandit" jacket that Burt Reynolds wore in Smokey and the Bandit, which also co-starred Dom DeLuise.
- Dom DeLuise's character in Cannonball Run makes a reference to Swamp fever, which his character in Smokey and the Bandit II specialized in.
- Scriptwriter Brock Yates (who also played himself as the organizer verbatimly stating the actual rules of the actual race right before it started) originally had Steve McQueen in mind for the lead role of JJ McClure, but he died right before the movie began production, so Burt Reynolds was chosen instead.
- With the many James Bond references, and Roger Moore driving a silver Aston Martin, it is reported that Moore was subsequently forced to sign an agreement to prevent him ever making such Bond references in a non-Bond film.
- In Billy and Mandy's Big Boogie Adventure, The Cannibal Run is a reference to the Cannonball Run.
- In a deleted scene from The Office (U.S. TV series), in episode The Fire (The Office episode), the character Kevin Malone reveals his favorite movies are Cannonball Run and Cannonball Run II.
- In the television series "Yes Dear", Cannonball Run is constantly referred to as Jimmy's favorite movie.
- The Character "Mad Dog" is based on the real life Dennis Menecini who's nickname is Mad Dog, and participated in the 1979 Cannonball Run in a Chevrolet truck.
- Heidi Von Beltz, actress and stuntwoman, was paralysed in an accident on the set of The Cannonball Run. She was in a car that had been switched from a left hand drive to right hand drive. The production was in a hurry, so the switch was done rather quickly and a seat belt was not installed. For the stunt Heidi was in the passenger seat in a car going about 60 miles per hour headed straight for a van. The driver was supposed to veer off at the last minute, but was unable to because the steering column locked and they crashed into the van. As a result of the crash, Heidi broke her neck at the fifth vertebrae and has been paralyzed ever since.
- Jackie Chan