Despite an inconsistent tone that wobbles between action, comedy, drama, and social satire, the car-race flick Cannonball! is periodically entertaining. As cowritten and directed by Paul Bartel—whose previous film, Death Race 2000 (1975), provided a more extreme take on similar material—the picture tries to capture the chaotic fun of the real-life Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, an illegal trek from New York to L.A. that attracted speed-limit-averse rebels for several years in the ‘70s. (In Cannonball!, the race is reversed, starting in Santa Monica and ending in Manhattan.) Bearing all the hallmarks of a Roger Corman enterprise (the picture was distributed by Corman’s company, New World), Cannonball! has a strong sadistic streak, seeing as how the plot is riddled with beatings, explosions, murders, and, of course, myriad car crashes. Yet while Death Race 2000 employed a body count to make a sardonic point, Cannonball! offers destruction for destruction’s sake. Shallow characterizations exacerbate the tonal variations, so the whole thing ends up feeling pointless. That said, Bartel and his collaborators achieve the desired frenetic pace, some of the vignettes are amusingly strange, and the movie boasts a colorful cast of B-movie stalwarts.
David Carradine, who also starred in Death Race 2000, stars as Coy “Cannonball” Buckman, a onetime top racer who landed in prison following a car wreck that left a passenger dead. Eager for redemption—and the race’s $100,000 prize—Coy enters the competition alongside such peculiar characters as Perman Waters (Gerrit Graham), a country singer who tries to conduct live broadcasts while riding in a car driven by maniacal redneck Cade Redman (Bill McKinney); Sandy Harris (Mary Woronov), leader of a trio of sexpots who use their wiles to get out of speeding tickets; Terry McMillan (Carl Gottlieb), a suburban dad who has his car flown cross-country in a brazen attempt to steal the first-place prize; and Wolf Messer (James Keach), a German racing champ determined to smite his American counterparts. Some racers play fair, while others employ sabotage, trickery, and violence.
Carradine is appealing, even if his martial-arts scenes seem a bit out of place, while Bartel (who also acts in the picture), Graham, McKinney, and Dick Miller give funny supporting turns. Thanks to its abundance of characters and events, Cannonball! is never boring, per se, but it’s also never especially engaging. Additionally, much of the picture’s novelty value—at least for contemporary viewers—relates to cinematic trivia. Cannonball! was the first of four pictures inspired by the real-life Cannonball race, since it was followed by The Gumball Rally (also released in 1976), The Cannonball Run (1981), and Cannonball Run II (1984). Providing more fodder for movie nerds, Bartel cast several noteworthy figures in cameo roles, including Sylvester Stallone (another holdover from Death Race 2000), Corman, and directors Allan Arkush, Joe Dante, and Martin Scorsese.