When Cannonball Run II smashed into theaters, the world simply wasn’t ready for it. “Sheer arrogance made this picture,” Roger Ebert noted, with extreme prejudice. And he’s not wrong: Hal Needham’s car-crash spectacular has all the elements of a vanity project gone haywire. Many scenes feel like Smokey and the Bandit crossed with Hollywood Squares, with a Krakatoa-sized mound of Colombian Pure thrown in for good measure. At the same time, thirty-eight years have blessed this fun Run with a brand new perspective. In many ways, this might be the most avant-garde blockbuster Hollywood ever made. Like any piece of great art, society has taken decades to catch up with it.
The film is built on the same simple chassis as the first brouhaha: There’s a bootleg race across the country, and the winner gets a cash prize. This means many of the same ding-a-lings from part 1 mount up and hit the highway. Burt Reynolds is the headliner as JJ, and his performance can be measured as 80% mustache and 20% punchable smirk. Dom DeLuise reappears as JJ’s sidekick, who relentlessly mugs for the camera until the movie thankfully launches him out of a cannon. These two goobers occupy the film’s creamy center, while a sprawling cast of goofballs comprise the Twinkie surrounding it.
It’s here, in the all-star periphery, that Cannonball Run II takes on its arthouse glory. So much of it plays like a coked-out fever dream: Tony Danza and Mel Tillis ride in a limo driven by a grinning orangutan. Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. are a couple of makeshift priests. Frank Sinatra does a cameo, and he looks so confused he might as well be on the bridge of the starship Enterprise. Oh yeah, you also get Shirley MacLaine dressed as a nun. And that guy from M*A*S*H plays an Arab sheik. Plus, there’s Charles Nelson Reilly as a mob boss! And Don Knotts…and Tim Conway..and…whooooo-weeeeee!!! This cocaine is a hell of a drug!
So strange. So beautiful. Cannonball Run II takes the pieces from ten bad action movies (at least five of them starring Burt Reynolds) and awkwardly snaps them into a brand new puzzle. The resulting image is abstract, almost the point of total incoherence. Many of the film’s action scenes are so poorly edited, it feels like the drivers are lapping themselves. Much like that old video of Carl Lewis singing the national anthem, I’m aware that something hideous is unfolding before my eyes. Yet, for all my strength, I can’t look away.
As with most of Burt Reynolds’ mid-career filmography, Cannonball Run II gets relegated to the bottom of the $1 bin at the local drugstore. Comb through that pile, and you’ll find it right next to the movies of Howie Long and Kirk Cameron, and near a box of cheap condoms you probably shouldn’t trust. Don’t be fooled by its reputation: This second Run deserves another shot at relevance. Take a chance, and you just might be blown away by its terrible magnificence.
108 min. PG.