The Cannonball Run is a 1981 American comedy film starring Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Dom DeLuise, Farrah Fawcett, and an all-star supporting cast. Filmed in Panavision, it was directed by Hal Needham, produced by Hong Kong's Golden Harvest films, and distributed by 20th Century Fox. The film is based on the 1979 running of an actual cross-country outlaw road race beginning in Connecticut and ending in California.
It was one of 1981's most successful films at the box office. It was followed by Cannonball Run II (1984), and Speed Zone (1989). This and the 1984 sequel were the final film appearances of actor Dean Martin. It also featured Jackie Chan in his second Hollywood role. This plot is also used in the 2011 video game Need for Speed: The Run where Jack Rourke competes in the race for a $25,000,000 prize.
Race teams have gathered in Connecticut to start a cross-country car 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:
- J.J. McClure and Victor Prinzi, drive a souped-up, but otherwise authentic, Dodge Tradesman ambulance. (Hal Needham and Brock Yates used the same vehicle in the actual 1979 race.)
- Former open-wheel icon (and Scotch-swilling) Jamie Blake and his (gambling-obsessed) teammate Morris Fenderbaum , dressed as Catholic priests, drive a red Ferrari 308 GTS 1979. (They are based on an entry in the real 1972 race, in which three men disguised as priests ("The Flying Fathers") drove a Mercedes 280 SEL sedan, which they claimed to be "the Monsignor's car" belonging to an ecumenical council of prelates in California.)
- Jill Rivers and Marcie Thatcher, two attractive women who use their looks to their advantage, start the race in a black Lamborghini Countach.
- Jackie Chan and Michael Hui race in a high-tech, computer-laden Subaru GL 4WD hatchback with a rocket booster engine.
- A pair of good ol' boys, played by Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis, drive a street-legal replica of Donnie Allison's Hawaiian Tropic-sponsored NASCAR Winston Cup Series Chevrolet stock car owned by Hoss Ellington. (It starts off as '75–76 Laguna. After they paint it, it somehow becomes a '76–77 Monte Carlo.)
- Roger Moore plays Seymour Goldfarb, Jr., "heir to the Goldfarb Girdles fortune," who perpetually identifies himself as actor Roger Moore and signs into the race under that name. His character behaves similarly to James Bond and only once (by his mother) is called by his real name. He drives a silver Aston Martin DB5. (This film was released around the same time as Moore's next bona fide James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only.)
- Jamie Farr portrays an oil-rich Middle-Eastern sheikh, 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 the "Safety Enforcement Unit", who tries to stop the race because of its environmental effects and safety issues. In the car with Foyt is a photographer and tree lover, Pamela Glover.
Beyond 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, Victor occasionally turns into his alter ego, superhero "Captain Chaos". The very spooky Dr. Van Helsing and his huge hypodermic needle are also in the ambulance to "help" keep Glover quiet during the race.
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. (However, this fails to work on a busty female traffic officer played in a cameo appearance by actress Valerie Perrine.)
- In New Jersey, the ambulance is pulled over by state troopers; Dr. Van Helsing drugs Glover, 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, which to J.J. and Victor's happy surprise is Van Helsing's idea, that her 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, switchable license plates, all installed in his Aston Martin DB5.
- Mr. Compton and "Super Chief" Finch disguise themselves as a newlywed couple on a motorcycle, but Finch's extra weight forces the two to ride cross-country in a continuous wheelie.
The primary rivalry is between the ambulance and the Ferrari. In Ohio, Fenderbaum and Blake are able to convince Victor to pull over the ambulance in order to bless the patient on board. While Blake carries out the blessing, Fenderbaum flattens one of the ambulance's rear tires. J.J. gets his revenge in Missouri by convincing a nearby police officer that the two men dressed as priests are actually Communists and sex perverts who are responsible for the flashing victim in the ambulance.
The leading teams find themselves stopped on a desert highway, waiting for construction workers to clear the road. A biker gang shows up and begins harassing Compton and Finch. It quickly gets out of hand and a free-for-all fistfight ensues. "Captain Chaos" re-emerges to fight the bikers. The Subaru team also joins in (Naturally, Jackie Chan puts his martial arts skills to work) and fists and kicks fly. The construction crew announces that the road is open, so the teams sprint back to their cars to resume the race.
The ambulance falls behind the pack until Victor once again becomes Captain Chaos. The vehicles all arrive at the final destination at the same time, so it is a foot race to the finish line. J.J. hands his team's time card to Victor, then ambushes the remaining racers, leaving only Victor and one of the Lamborghini women, Marcie.
Just when it appears Victor will reach the time clock first, a spectator shouts that her "baby" has fallen into the water. Victor, still in his Captain Chaos persona, rushes to save the baby (later revealed to be her dog), allowing Marcie to clock in first and win the race.
J.J. is furious and never wants to see Captain Chaos again, but Victor replies that he does not care, becoming the persona he really wants to be, Captain USA. J.J. laughs and hugs him. Foyt reappears and blames everyone for ruining the American highway. Seymour offers a cigar and tells Foyt to use the lighter in his car, which activates an ejection seat when pushed. Nothing happens at first, but when Seymour presses the button, he goes flying into the water.
- Burt Reynolds as J.J. McClure
- Dom DeLuise as Victor "Prinzi" Prinzim
- Roger Moore as Seymour Goldfarb, Jr.
- Farrah Fawcett as Pamela Glover
- Dean Martin as Jamie Blake
- Sammy Davis Jr. as Morris Fenderbaum
- George Furth as Arthur J. Foyt
- Jackie Chan as Subaru Driver #1
- Michael Hui as Subaru Driver #2
- Jamie Farr as Sheik Abdul ben Falafel
- Mel Tillis as Mel (himself)
- Terry Bradshaw as Terry (himself)
- Adrienne Barbeau as Marcie Thatcher
- Tara Buckman as Jill Rivers
- Bert Convy as Bradford Compton
- Jack Elam as Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing
- Rick Aviles as Mad Dog
- Alfie Wise as Batman
- John Fiedler as the desk clerk
- Joe Klecko as the Polish driver
- Hal Needham as the ambulance EMT
- Ken Squier as California Highway Patrolman
- June Foray (archive footage)
- Peter Fonda
The film continued director Hal Needham's tradition of showing bloopers during the closing credits (a practice he started with Smokey and the Bandit II). Jackie Chan says this inspired him to do the same at the end of most of his films.
The film is based on the 1979 running of the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, an actual cross-country outlaw road race held four times in the 1970s, starting at the Red Ball Garage on 31st Street in New York City (later the Lock, Stock and Barrel Restaurant in Darien, Connecticut) and ending at the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California, in Los Angeles.
The screenwriter was automotive journalist Brock Yates, who had conceived the real-life Cannonball Baker event. Yates had originally proposed the race as a writer for Car and Driver. The race had only one rule: "All competitors will drive any vehicle of their choosing, over any route, at any speed they judge practical, between the starting point and destination. The competitor finishing with the lowest elapsed time is the winner."
Yates' team was the only participant in the original 1971 running, which was named after the driver Ernest "Cannonball" Baker, who drove across country in 1927 and made it in 60 hours. Yates wrote a book about it called "The Sunday Driver". In 1973 it was reported John G. Avildsen and writer Eugene Price was to make a film based on the book called The Cannonball-Baker-Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. The film was not made but the race did inspire the (unrelated) 1976 films Cannonball and The Gumball Rally.
In the March 1979 race Yates formed one of 46 teams with director Hal Needham to compete with a 150-MPH van converted into an ambulance, with LA doctor Lyell Royer, and Brock's second wife, Pamela Reynolds, riding as the patient on the gurney. Although the ambulance never made it to the finish line — the transmission gave out 50 miles short of the Redondo Beach finish line — Yates made it to the movie as a race official and Needham as an EMT, as did the ambulance itself and even the transmission failure. The ambulance was stopped once, in Pennsylvania; that event made it into the movie, as did a cop stopping traffic in Kansas, exiting from a rodeo, to let the ambulance pass unimpeded.
The Right Bra team was put together by rail-thin auto writer Judy Stropus, race driver Donna Mae Mims and Peggy Niemcek, whose husband was part of another entry, driving a Cadillac limo. In the movie, it became a two-woman team led by buxom Adrienne Barbeau driving a Lamborghini, but as auto writer Stropus said decades later, "a little editorial license never hurt anyone." Yates points out in his book Cannonball! that Stropus's version of the race does not mention the baptism with green fluid from the porta-potty the three girls experienced when the limo overturned.
The characters J.J. and Victor participate in the Cannonball Run in an ambulance: a heavily modified Dodge Tradesman van. In the beginning, J.J. says to himself "we could get a black Trans Am", then answers his own question with "Nah that's been done," a reference to the Smokey and the Bandit films of Burt Reynolds and director Hal Needham.
In an attempt to appear legitimate to law enforcement, the team of J.J. and Victor hires Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing, a frightening, yet friendly, physician of questionable skill played by Jack Elam. They kidnap attractive young photographer Pamela Glover (Farrah Fawcett) — whom they nickname "Beauty" — to be their cover patient. Beauty vehemently opposes her beastly captors at first, but eventually comes to sympathize with her captors and fall for J.J.
Yates and Needham worked on a script and Al Ruddy became attached as producer. They wanted Reynolds to star, but he was reluctant to make more car-themed films. He was eventually persuaded by Needham's promise to keep the actor's schedule to only 14 days of filming, and a fee of $5 million plus a percentage of the profits. Finance came from Raymond Chow of Golden Harvest, who requested that Jackie Chan be included in the cast.
"I did that film for all the wrong reasons," said Reynolds later. "I never liked it. I did it to help out a friend of mine, Hal Needham. And I also felt it was immoral to turn down that kind of money. I suppose I sold out so I couldn't really object to what people wrote about me."
A huge commercial success, The Cannonball Run earned US$72,179,579 in the United States and Canada, making it the sixth highest-grossing film of 1981, behind Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond, Superman II, Arthur, and Stripes. In France, The Cannonball Run sold 988,509 box office admissions in 1981. In Germany, the film sold 4,825,937 admissions, becoming the third highest-grossing film of 1981. In Japan, it was the second highest-grossing foreign film of 1982, grossing ¥2.1 billion at the box office. Worldwide, the film grossed over US$100 million.
Despite its box office success, most critics reviewed the film negatively. It has received an approval rating of 30% on Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes based on 33 reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film a half-star out of four, calling it "an abdication of artistic responsibility at the lowest possible level of ambition. In other words, they didn't even care enough to make a good lousy movie". Variety described the film as "full of terribly inside showbiz jokes and populated by what could be called Burt and Hal's Rat Pack, film takes place in that redneck never-never land where most of the guys are beer-guzzling good ole boys and all the gals are fabulously built tootsies." Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film "inoffensive and sometimes funny. Because there are only a limited number of variations that can be worked out on this same old highway race, don't bother to see it unless you're already hooked on the genre."
The film was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress for Fawcett, but lost to Diana Scarwid for the cult film Mommie Dearest.
On June 25, 1980, 24-year-old German American stuntwoman Heidi von Beltz (1955–2015), a former championship skier and aspiring actor, was critically injured in a car crash during production of the film. The original stunt person had left the production to attend an emergency family illness, and the stunt coordinator Bobby Bass called his then-fiancée von Beltz to the set for a stunt that he said was to be "a piece of cake". The car was to be driven by Jimmy Nickerson, weaving between oncoming vehicles while von Beltz rode in the passenger seat operating a smoke machine to give the impression the car was on fire. She was a world-class skier with no previous stunt driving experience. The Aston Martin car was beset with mechanical problems, including defective steering, clutch, and speedometer; it had bald tires, and no seat belts. Nickerson wanted repairs to the car but was told parts had not arrived and to "make do." In the event the car collided head-on with a van and Von Beltz's neck was broken leaving her quadriplegic.
When it became clear that von Beltz's personal injury lawsuit would exceed all available primary insurance coverage, the production's excess insurer, Interstate Fire (a subsidiary of Hollywood's favorite insurer, Fireman's Fund Insurance Company) sued von Beltz and her employer, Stuntman Inc., for a declaratory judgment that von Beltz's lawsuit was not covered under its policy. In 1988, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that there was a duty to defend, and that there was also a duty to indemnify to the extent that von Beltz was seeking recovery for mental injuries (the exclusion for bodily injuries was ruled to be enforceable).
She was eventually awarded $7 million although a judge reduced the amount and she ended up with $3.2 million. Much of the settlement went to her attorneys and to paying off medical bills. The industry adopted mandatory seat belts on all stunt-car work primarily due to this incident.
Warner Bros. has acquired the rights to the Cannonball Run franchise and in 2016 set Etan Cohen to write and direct a remake, titled Cannonball. Andre Morgan and Alan Gasmer are producing.
On June 4, 2018, it was announced that Doug Liman was in early talks to direct the film from a script by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant.