Sunday, June 28, 2009

Some Things Are More Important Than Winning

I’ve seen both CANNONBALL RUNs, I’ve seen CANNONBALL! and now I’ve finally seen THE GUMBALL RALLY which is pretty much the best of all of them. And I say that fully aware that there’s going to be no stealing away the cult status of THE CANNONBALL RUN anytime soon. Hey, I get it, I know. I’ve watched THE CANNONBALL RUN countless times through the years and I could quote it as well as anybody. I’m not out to trash Hal Needham’s magnum opus that means so much to everyone out there in the world, especially not when several of its stars have recently left us (the sequel, on the other hand…). THE GUMBALL RALLY, based on the same race that the other films based their plots on, is pretty much what THE CANNONBALL RUN would be if it were made by people who’s first goal was to make a funny, exciting movie with real attention paid to both the characters and the feel for driving out on the open road, not just focused on shooting out a few of the big name guest stars in a few days so everyone can head off to the bar before happy hour ends. THE GUMBALL RALLY, also more of a comedy than the action-focused CANNONBALL! (which isn’t bad, if memory serves), is pretty modest stuff in the end but it does everything it wants to do in just the right way and put me in a better mood than I was before. It has to be one of the most purely pleasant car crash pictures ever made. As we sometimes remember, it was the seventies.

Bored business man Michael Bannon (Michael Sarrazin) is suffering through an extremely dull business meeting when he suddenly picks up the phone, dials a number and speaks one word: Gumball. It means only one thing, that the Gumball Rally is on once again and the various members, those who have “The necessary skills and the determination to succeed,” of this secret society soon gather in New York to begin another race to drive across the country in the fastest amount of time possible. The rules: there are no rules. As the drivers set out to break the previous year’s record of 34 hours and 11 minutes, Lieutenant Roscoe (Normann Burton, Felix Leiter in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, at one point seen reading “The Sound and the Fury” in a cute touch) continually tries to remain hot on their tail, hoping to put an end to the Gumball Rally once and for all.

A cult movie that never seems to have become a cult movie, THE GUMBALL RALLY is pretty much like a feature length version of Hanna-Barbera’s WACKY RACES. It’s light, it’s minor, but it is fun with well-established, um, wacky characters that include now-familiar faces like Raul Julia, Gary Busey and THE TOWERING INFERNO’s Susan Flannery. Directed by Charles Bail (lots of TV, but also CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD) it never quite hits the height of hysteria of something like FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, to name another 70s piece of car-chase madness from Warner Brothers, but it is consistently enjoyable from start to finish. Taking pleasure in the small things, it lets us get an idea of the small details of how the race is organized and, unlike CANNONBALL RUN, actually offers a feel of what it would be like driving out there on the open road for long stretches of time. Nobody watching these movies really cares about the logistical details of such things but the degree of attention it pays to when the race starts, how long it takes and the hours passing helps us pay attention to what’s going on as well as making it even more fun. I guess you could compare it to IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD but as much driving and destruction as there is the film is so breezy and relaxed in its comic nature (especially when compared to the top-heavy earlier epic) that it would almost be misleading to do so, though the trailer on the DVD tries for it anyway. The precision of the sequence where a certain Rolls Royce drives through an array of collisions, leaving destruction in its wake yet emerging unscathed isn’t flashy on any level—you never feel like it’s screaming ‘Hey! The Rolls didn’t get hit!’ at you--but the joke gets across and it’s pretty damn funny. That approach sums up a lot of the film as well. It’s goofy, but never too over-the-top in its comedy (well, maybe a few times…). There’s a nice spirit to the whole thing as well—except for Burton’s law enforcement representative (as benign a villain as you could possibly get) there aren’t any bad guys in the actual race, though some mean bikers turn up—hey, just like CANNONBALL RUN! While everyone clearly wants to win they’re also there for the thrill and the camaraderie of it all, making the overall feel of the film even more likable. At one point one of the characters states, “If I have to die, I want to die trying,” which pretty much sums up the philosophy the film lays out. Though there are occasional signs of 70s sleaze to be found (hey! There’s a streaker!), it rarely comes close to rising above PG-level goofiness. There’s also some very good location work all through it (much of it apparently in Arizona; there’s stuff shot in Los Angeles and Long Beach as well), particularly in New York when the race begins, giving a nice look at the city in the 70s. The streets are empty (it’s supposed to be early morning) but people can clearly be seen on the sidewalks watching the cars and there’s some particularly neat footage of a few of the cars speeding through a nearly-empty Times Square (JAWS and LET’S DO IT AGAIN can be seen on marquees).

It’s not a movie about performances but the cast made up of unknowns and familiar faces like Sarrazin, Busey, Flannery, Joanne Nail, Tim McIntire, Harvey Jason, Nicholas Pryor, Tricia O’Neil and others are all very enjoyable, with Julia especially good, no surprise, as the Italian Franco Bertollini. As he says when the race begins, “First rule of Italian driving: What’s behind me is not important!”, while throwing his rearview mirror away. Burton is also particularly funny as the practically sympathetic bad guy. Colleen Camp turns up along the way and actor Med Flory, playing a highway cop who gets conned by a few of the racers, stands out in a funny scene in which he seems to be doing some sort of odd Henry Fonda impression. Even the music by Dominic Frontiere fits it with the tone just right and at times is cartoonish enough that I wonder if this was another part of the film inspired by WACKY RACES (why do I even remember that show?).

There’s not too much analysis to get into about THE GUMBAL RALLY because it’s really not that kind of film. It’s just a fun, easygoing 70s comedy with lots of fun car stuff, twisted characterizations and a nice vibe to it all. I don’t know if this is one of those little-known 70s films that I would proclaim to be a newly discovered masterwork and go shouting from the rooftops about, something that FREEBIE AND THE BEAN is a perfect example of. But in its own modest way it can be pretty damn fun as well as a nice reminder that seeing cars drive fast and sometimes crash into each other can be very enjoyable to watch.



Thomas Pluck said...

Ah, you beat me to it. I loved this film, and it IS the best of the Gumball Rally films; plus it's the only one that gets the name right. I'm glad you mentioned the rear view mirror quote, it's practically a philosophy. And the NYC driving scenes are quite unique, you'll never see the likes of them again.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thanks very much, it's a fun film with a fun spirit. I'm surprised those New York scenes aren't better known because at times they're quite stunning to look at.

Anonymous said...

"Gumball" That is all.

- Bob