Friday, May 23, 2014

Used Cars

(R, Columbia Pictures, 113 mins., theatrical release date: July 11, 1980)

If I told you about a movie which was from the creators of Back to the Future, with Steven Spielberg as executive producer alongside maverick story writer John Milius, and starring Kurt Russell in one of his first major breakaways from his Disney child star past, the unspoken assumption would be of a prestige picture so massive that Tom Hanks himself would've hopped in the magical DeLorean to covet it if given half a chance. Alas, the Academy Awards weren't quick to acknowledge the result of such a lofty-sounding collaboration, which turned out to be the 1980 cult film USED CARS, a scrappy but satirically-blessed comedy in the rude, crude model of Slap Shot, Animal House and Caddyshack. A screwball comedy with a liberal dose of T&A and roiling patriotic pessimism from the man who later gave us Forrest Gump. Go figure!

Remember Daffy Duck's sing-songy disdain of "honesty in business affairs" from Quackbusters? Well, here's a feature-length, live action extension of that scoffing attitude, with enough double talk and dirty deeds to forge the establishment of a whole new colony. It's the tale of two dodgy motor salesman so full of B.S. that they each, naturally, have political aspirations. On the one middle finger, you've got Rudy Russo (Russell), who wheels and deals at the disreputable New Deal Used Cars lot owned by Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), a paternal but ailing old gent who disapproves of Rudy's conniving but prefers those to the schemes of his twin brother Roy (Warden again), who runs the Auto Emporium across the way. Rudy is ten grand behind on buying a seat in the Arizona senate for grafts and gratification, whereas Roy has bribed the mayor in an attempt to advance the construction of a highway overpass which will cut a swath in his sibling's business.

Impatiently, Roy decides to stir Luke into a fatal stroke with the aid of demolition man Mickey (Michael Talbott). After a chrome-plated funeral for Luke in the driver's seat of an Edsel, Rudy and his associates concoct an excuse to prevent Roy from seizing the property, namely that Luke has driven to Miami Beach for some R&R. This gives them free reign to start jamming television broadcasts and hiring strippers (including Hill Street Blues star/future filmmaker Betty Thomas) to boost their flagging sales, but Roy is hardly deterred. Rudy, meanwhile, develops guilt when Luke's long-lost daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon) arrives for a go-nowhere reconciliation with her pappy and a budding romance with Rudy.

But first there's both a football game and a presidential address to sabotage with the assistance of Michael "Lenny" McKean and David "Squiggy" Lander as electronics wizzes Freddie & Eddie, the latter boastful of his DIY $12.95 pacemaker for the former. In the midst of a colorful cast of character actors (watch out for Al Lewis, Dub Taylor, Alfonso Arau, and Dick friggin' Miller) as well as Kurt Russell, both these moments as well as several others are duly stolen by Gerrit Graham in a typically offbeat, outlandish supporting role as Rudy's right-hand man Jeff. Superstitious to the point of self-loathing, he has an FCC-violating meltdown on the first go when posing in front of "a red chariot to take my ass straight to Hell!" And that's before he gets hopped up on valiums and decked out in cowboy garb as Marshal Lucky for an orgy of shotgun and dynamite destruction which even Jimmy Carter hears with unmistakable clarity.

Not to diminish Russell's rakish charms, which were as plain as plaid even before his string of Carpenter classics, or the brazen villainy of Warden as Roy L. Fuchs, but Graham is in top form for the many set pieces he's called on to carry. When a down-and-out Rudy wagers his life savings on the opposite team in a football match, Jeff (sym)pathetically springs into action to turn the odds against himself, spilling every salt shaker and opening up every umbrella within reach ("Is there a black cat in the house? How about a ladder?"). In a ploy to guilt trip a bulky family man into driving off in a pre-owned Gran Torino station wagon, he feigns the death of beagle mascot Toby ("I raised him from a puppy!"). And it's Jeff who holds the fate of New Deal Used Cars when Roy finally comes within crushing distance of his competitors. In short, Gerrit Graham makes every moment he's in a joyride.

Robert Zemeckis, scripting with occasional partner and producer Bob Gale, would go on to helm two more decade-defining comedies, including the masterful Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but even within the confines of a rare R-rated romp such as this, the esteemed Spielberg protégé gets a surprising amount of mileage from perceivably junky materials. The aforementioned Marshal Lucky commercial provokes some hysterical impromptu reactions from Graham, Warden and Russell, who distracts the unaware Harmon with a ridiculously prolonged kiss. There is a memorable gag which deploys a cadaver pre-Weekend at Bernie's as well as an action-packed finale where 250 cars are piloted by drivers ed students, with a chain-whipping Roy hot on their trail. Credit is especially due to film editor and Spielberg stableman Michael Kahn, who is expertly fluid in making a two-hour trip.

But at the center of it all is Russell, one of those boisterously funny gentlemen who can perk up many a commentary track (including the one he shares with Zemeckis and Gale on this film's DVD/BD releases), but whose CV in hindsight is more action and drama-oriented. Embracing the profane rat-a-tat dialogue and cocky duplicity with an élan akin to freedom, you wonder why he as well as Zemeckis haven't returned to that embellished form of japery in so long. Used Cars is the kind of movie whose opening montage of a lemon being twisted into a cherry (a twist of the pliers here, a wad of bubblegum there, don't forget that store-bought spray of factory freshness) pretty much sums up the talents of its makers. It's one of the funniest films of its era. Trust me.

Boutique label Twilight Time, known for their limited-to-3000-copies pressings of various catalog titles, ported over this one from Sony and retained several of the original DVD extras, namely the outtakes reel, vintage radio/TV adverts (see Russell cameo in a plug for the real life Mesa Chrysler lot which doubled as Roy Fuchs' Auto Emporium) and that indispensable three-man commentary track, in which the participants are stunned that Columbia Pictures let them make this movie, although their marketing wing ultimately proved ineffectual. Exclusive to this edition are an expanded photo gallery, an original theatrical trailer and two isolated score tracks, including one which restores several alternate, grandiose music cues from an unaccredited Ernest Gold.

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