Double Feature of Doom! Carmageddon! pt 2
By: M.G. Marshall
After Death Race 2000’s runaway success at the box office, Roger Corman immediately tapped director Paul Bartel to make another car movie. Bartel’s initial idea was Frankencar, about a half-man/half-car cyborg. Unfortunately, the stars could never truly align for an idea quite that awesome, with Corman deciding it would cost too much to produce and instead insisting that Bartel make something realistic and down-to-earth, even more so than Death Race 2000 was. Bartel was disappointed and feared being typecast as an action director, but he nevertheless soldiered through it, delivering a movie that’s full of the same quirky, oddball sense of humor that made Death Race 2000 so likeable.
Largely inspired by The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash- a real life illegal cross-country race that was run five times in the 1970s and would later also serve as the basis for the Cannonball Run movies- the film centers on The Trans-America Grand Prix, an illegal race from L.A. to New York City. David Carradine stars again, this time as Coy “Cannonball” Buckman, an aging driver who’s recently been released from jail for a drunk driving incident which resulted in the death of a young girl. With an offer to drive for racing team Modern Motors if he can win the race, Coy sets off with his parole officer/girlfriend, Linda (Veronica Hamel) along for the ride. In this one, instead of dressing Carradine like the unholy fusion of Darth Vader and the Gimp from Pulp Fiction, they make the odd decision to put him in a pink hoodie, a red neckerchief (tied like an ascot) and loafers. Now, while this outfit would almost certainly suck the wind out of even the most badass of action stars’ sails, I reiterate my previous assertion- David Carradine is cool in any and every context he appears in. It’s a rule I live by, and this ridiculous yacht club-looking outfit is not nearly enough to make me question it.
With the main focus on Carradine, the rest of the film takes a freewheeling, ensemble-cast-style approach. It’s almost as if somebody like Robert Altman or Christopher Guest decided to make a schlocky drive-in racing movie. And it affords Paul Bartel the opportunity to indulge in even more of the character actor craziness that he clearly loves so much. Some of the more choice appearances include:
-There’s another ancillary, phony-German villain. This time it’s Wolfe Messer (played by Stacy Keach’s brother, James) who spends the majority of his time onscreen smoking a pipe, smugly commenting to himself about America, and calling the other racers “Dumkopf.” Yet again, I have no recourse but to wholeheartedly love this.
-The weirdo redneck wagon. In a single car, we have Burt Reynolds crony and Deliverance rapist Bill McKinney as Cade Redman, Coy’s murderous archnemesis; Gerrit Graham (“Beef” from Phantom of the Paradise and the voice of Franklin Sherman on The Critic) as Perman Waters, an obnoxious country singer; and Judy Canova (a radio personality and Hollywood standby known for playing hayseed-y characters) in her last role as Perman’s scheming manager.
-A pre-Revenge of the Nerds supporting role from David’s half-brother Robert Carradine. It’s always nice to see him, even if he’s not given a whole lot to do here.
-Dick Miller (of The Terror) as Coy’s desperate gambler brother Bennie, who’s intent on fixing the race and betting on his brother. I can’t really decide if it’s a gutsy choice or just an incredibly oblivious one to cast Dick Miller as David Carradine’s brother in a movie that also stars David’s real-life half-brother. At any rate, Dick Miller is great in this, bringing a tangible frustration to the role.
-Finally, Paul Bartel casts himself as the stodgy, piano-playing mob boss whom Dick Miller owes money to. It’s just the sort of role that fits Bartel like a glove, and a perfect illustration of why I love his work, both as an actor and a director. Also, in one brief scene, we get to see him confer with two henchmen (played by Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese!) over a couple buckets of KFC. Now, I know why Stallone is in this, but why and how in the hell did Scorsese turn up in Cannonball…?!
In addition to the eclectic cast, this movie also has some of the most impressive car action I’ve ever seen in a movie of this ilk. Seriously, I know I marveled last time at the sheer numbers of wrecked police cars in The Thing with Two Heads, but that movie’s got nothing on Cannonball’s fiery, multi-car pileup finale. Hell, I don’t think even Hal Needham ever wrecked so many cars for a single movie. Per capita, it’s got more car crashes and massive, fireball explosions than your average Michael Bay flick, and this movie has the added benefit of all the action onscreen being done practically. And by “done practically” I mean real cars slamming into each other and exploding into real fireballs while real stunt performers likely seriously endanger their own lives. For real! I can really respect the effort that goes into something like that…
So, if you’re looking to kick back with a couple of high-octane, no-holds-barred car extravaganzas (And, really, why wouldn’t you be if you’re reading my articles?), or if you’re just looking for some offbeat performances, garish costumes, and cartoonish car designs with a few laughs, you can’t go wrong with Death Race 2000 and Cannonball!