Two Balls: a Movie Review by Ben Shahrabani

About the author: Amongst other things, Benjamin is a car and movie (and car movie) enthusiast, as well as a produced screenwriter. He owns a Porsche 993 (it's the last of the air-cooled, which makes it extra cool!). When he's not writing, or taking his car to the mechanic and kvetching about the bill, he may be found in Venice, CA. Just like Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, come to Venice, he can help you.

May 13, 2013—Wide Open obviously loves road trips and when we got to discussing the best road trip/car movies, two immediately came to mind: Cannonball Run and The Gumball Rally. Two movies about man (and occasionally, very attractive woman) and machine racing from coast-to-coast, but which is better?

Before delving into such heady fare: a bit of history. In the 1970s - the days of OPEC, gas lines, poorly built, underpowered American cars and the dreaded double-nickel speed limit - there was also the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, commonly known as the Cannonball Run. This informal, highly illegal, cross-country race was conceived of and run by Car & Driver magazine's Brock Yates in part to demonstrate that it was safe for good drivers to drive arbitrarily fast on public roads (and in part to thumb his nose at authority). It was about the freedom, man!

Cannonball Run Logo

Two movies were made based on the event. Written by Brock Yates himself – Cannonball Run, was released in 1981, starring Burt Reynolds (then the world’s biggest movie star) and directed by stuntman Hal Needham (Hooper, Smokey and the Bandit). But most don't remember (or know) that it was preceded by a similar movie by some five years – The Gumball Rally – released in 1976. This one starred mostly lesser known actors (apologies to them) as well Gary Busey and Raul Julia (who weren’t that famous yet) and directed by Charles Bail.

Both are about a frantic race from NY to LA, all for the glory of getting there first; the team with the lowest elapsed time wins. Racers could use any car they wished, and there was certainly an abundance of exotics (for their time) in both films. In Cannonball Run, there is the iconic Lamborghini Countach, Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, Ferrari 308 (also made famous in the Magnum P.I. Series), and the mighty Subaru GL. To be honest, Cannonball Run was much lighter in exotica than the actual races. Much better were the cars competing in The Gumball Rally – a Mercedes 300SL, Ferrari Daytona, Shelby Cobra 427, Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, Chevrolet Camaro, Porsche 911S, and Jaguar XKE (which never leaves the garage, as the drivers could not coax it to start).

The Gumball Rally

The Gumball Rally begins with the racers being summoned by a one word message—“gumball.” Upon receiving the message, they drop whatever they're doing and assemble in Connecticut, where the race will begin. The finish line is the Santa Monica Pier, roughly 3000 miles away. The racers are more-or-less serious; Candy tycoon Bannon, in the Cobra, is played the straightest, whom it is insinuated has a deep rivalry with Franco in the Ferrari Dayton Spyder (played by Raul Julia who instructs, "First rule of Italian Driving. What's behind me is not important," as he rips the rearview-mirror off the windshield). Meanwhile, a "Crazy Hungarian" going solo on a Kawasaki is almost purely comic relief. One of the teams drives a van with enough gasoline on board to make the entire trip without stopping. And, of course, no chase movie would be complete without a Lt. Roscoe, the New York City cop determined to catch the racers, even if it means chasing them all the way to LA to do it.

The driving sequences, particularly early on—through the early morning streets of New York City, are some of the best. Period. There are no camera tricks. The drivers really are launching those incredible cars around the corners at full throttle. The movie is worth screening just for the incredible driving.

The setup of the movie is clean and efficient, and we get to the racing action pretty quickly, but story wise, we don't ever feel we know these characters. It's almost like The Gumball Rally is the sequel to another movie. For instance, Bannon and Franco’s rivalry is alluded to but we don't know their history, which is a shame because it could have added another dimension to the film. It feels very sketchy, something a screenwriter could not get away with today. There is also the unnecessary subplot of some vaguely ethnic hopeful driving an expensive car across the country with his girlfriend in a 'ride and drive' scheme. This component is completely irrelevant and makes no sense as he's driving at low speeds (as directed by the car's owner) yet maintains the same progress across the country as the racers. Comic relief indeed. The real point isn't the characters, I suppose. It's about the cars and the race, hence the title of the movie.

The Gumball Rally

The Gumball Rally racers dueling in the desert


For reasons described more in depth in Yates' book by the same name, The Cannonball Run movie came out 5-years later after lingering in "development hell.” Film stars fell in and out of love with the script (including one time lead Steve McQueen) conspiring to derail it until Burt Reynolds signed on. It should be pointed out that Brock Yates' original vision of the movie was radically different than the movie that got produced. It was supposedly much more of an introspective film that echoed the zeitgeist of the 70's (think Two Lane Blacktop, LeMans or Vanishing Point).

The Cannonball Run

The script that was produced might best be described as the world's longest character set-up (around thirty minutes). Thirty minutes! Which is followed by a flimsy excuse to string together as many gratuitous car stunts and chases as possible. They introduce ace stuntman Burt Reynolds and sidekick Dom Deluise, Roger Moore playing a guy who only looks like Roger Moore, Jackie Chan as a hi-tech Japanese (! - he's from Hong Kong) racer, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. as womanizing gamblers, sports personalities like Terry Bradshaw (in the Gary Busey role here as a redneck racer), and MASH's own Jamie Farr as The Sheik (whose role is expanded in the sequel). A-mazing. They certainly went all out. For what it’s worth, the actors looked like they had fun filming, though.

Cannonball Run lacks almost everything. I'm not even sure they shot with a script as every scene has an improvised feel. To be fair, a few moments did manage to make me smile—Jackie Chan kicking biker-gang ass (even though it was preposterous), Adrienne Barbeau's cleavage, and Jack Elam as a drunken proctologist—but the majority of the film left me massively disappointed. Where is the character development (even with 30 minutes of setup), strong plotline, well-crafted humor, well-photographed racing sequences? Not in this movie apparently.

Adrienne Barbeau Cannonball Run

Adrienne Barbeau, seated, and Tara Buckman on their Lamborghini Countach


You can't do anything but watch in amazement, though. Why you ask? Well, a lot of the scenes are actually true. The souped-up ambulance that Burt Reynolds drives? True. Brock Yates actually entered such a vehicle in one of the Cannonballs. The guy who drives through the hotel at the beginning? Someone actually did that in their zeal to get to the highways faster than the rest of the racers. Ultimately, Cannonball Run can be classified as "so bad its good."

After watching both movies (clocking in at a combined 200 minutes), and "driving" coast to coast (on my couch, of course) twice, it is my opinion that The Gumball Rally is a better movie except for Cannonball’s opening Lamborghini scene. While both films are entertaining, Gumball more appropriately captures the essence of the actual Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash of the '70s. You feel the people who made The Gumball Rally knew their cars better, and they'll have you craving a powerful engine, a full tank of gas, and the Wide Open road. [kiWO]