The Cannonball Run  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Cannonball Run (1981, Twentieth Century Fox) is a campy, 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 film was produced by Golden Harvest films. The premise is very similar to the earlier Cannonball 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.


Plot details

The Basis

The movie is based on the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, an actual cross-country outlaw road race from the Red Ball Garage in New York City (later Darien, CT) to the pier at Redondo Beach, California, just south of Los Angeles, 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 and the 'all female entry'.

Reynolds plays has-been race car driver J.J. McClure, and playing his mild-mannered mechanic counterpart, Victor Prinzim, 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 this at first, she eventually warms to the idea of being a participant in the race and to her unlikely "captors."

The Race

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:

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 during traffic stops. (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:

  • Farrah Fawcett also co-stars as tree-loving photographer Pamela Glover.
  • 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 and Thunderball. 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. 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 Sheik 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Although the movie script describes Jackie Chan and Michael Hui as Japanese, they spoke Cantonese 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
  • 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 and laughs in Reynolds' high-pitched "trademark" laugh.
  • 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.
  • Dom DeLuise's character, Victor Prinzim, is named after Vic Prinzi, a friend and former college football teammate of Burt Reynolds at Florida State University. The real Prinzi went on to become a radio commentator for FSU football gamesTemplate:Fact.
  • 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 II, 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 raceTemplate:Fact 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 insteadTemplate:Fact.
  • 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 a deleted scene from The Office, in episode The Fire, 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 whose nickname is Mad Dog, and participated in the 1979 Cannonball Run in a Chevrolet truck.Template:Fact

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Cannonball Run" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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