One Too Many: Speed Zone (1989)

Written by Allan Mott

I’m not what you would call a “good” Canadian. Beyond my general distaste for all ice sports, cheap donut franchise coffee and ending every spoken statement as a question (eh?), I also tend to avoid the Canadian iterations of TV shows I am otherwise obsessed with. That’s why I’ve never seen an episode of the northern versions of Masterchef or Top Chef. Past experience has taught me that something nearly always fails in the translation. Somehow, we always manage to take something great and carefully dredge all of the greatness out of it.

(Here’s where I—as an occasional contributor to Canuxploitation, a sincere online tribute to Canadian exploitation films—make it clear that I LOVE many original Canadian creations. My antipathy only extends to those works that attempt to reconstruct a previously established product in a Canadian mold.)

But this doesn’t completely apply to the subject of this month’s post, since it’s not a Canadian version of something great, but instead a Canadian version of something that was only barely endurable in the first place. But before we get to that, let’s indulge in a brief history of one of cinema’s odder sub-sub-sub-genres—the Cross Country Road Race Film (CCRRF).

While there are previous examples one could go back to, the true origin of this small, but distinctive, subset of films has to be Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). While not technically a race picture, it established the framework upon which these films would be built—a large collection of cartoonish characters (played—most often—by a cast of affordable but recognizable stars and character actors) indulging in a series of episodic shenanigans in their pursuit of a common goal.

The direct blueprints of Mad World can be seen in films as diverse as Scavenger Hunt (1979), Midnight Madness (1980), Million Dollar Mystery (1987), Rat Race (2001) and several others, while the first hint of what would become the CCRRF offshoot arrived in 1975 with Paul Bartel’s comic exploitation masterpiece, Death Race 2000.

Bartel’s futuristic tale of a popular televised event in which contestants race across a dystopian America, earning points for every pedestrian they kill along the way, is a rare non-contemporary example of the CCRRF but (beyond it’s overall excellence) it has to be mentioned because its success directly led to the creation of the film that actually did set the standard—1976’s Cannonball!.

Bartel also made Cannonball! but only reluctantly. Truth was, he wasn’t a fan of car crash movies and he didn’t want to be typecast as a dude who made them. His reticence and bitterness over this can be seen in the film’s final, nearly apocalyptic, highway pile-up finale, which is so extreme and brutal (in comparison to the light-hearted comic tone of the rest of the film) that it almost plays like a Haneke-ian Funny Games­-style deconstruction of the entire genre. “You assholes want to see cars crashing? I’ll fucking SHOW YOU cars crashing.”

Charles Bail’s The Gumball Rally (1976) was made virtually concurrently as Cannonball! and entertainingly tells the same story (a group of oddballs come together to illegally race across America), but without Bartel’s occasional bouts of audience-directed sadism (and—significantly—without a shot of the director eating Kentucky Fried Chicken with Martin Scorsese and Sylvester Stallone, which CAN be seen in Cannonball!) and a much more consistently comic tone.

Both films were based on a real race and it would take a man who actually competed in it to create the most famous and popular examples of the CCRRF genre ever made. For years, Hal Needham had been Hollywood’s most successful stuntman and he had moved from crashing cars, riding horses and falling from great heights to directing the biggest hit from 1977 that wasn’t called Stars WarsSmokey and the Bandit.

One thing Needham loved about the “Cannonball” race was how competitors would go out of their way to come up with ideas to avoid having to stop (driving a van designed to hold an unusual amount of gas) or be pulled over for speeding (one year he drove in a souped up ambulance). He talked about this with his friend, producer Albert S. Ruddy (a two-time Oscar winner for his work on The Godfather and Million Dollar Baby) and they agreed it would make for a perfect vehicle for Smokey superstar, Burt Reynolds.

Once Reynolds realized that the film was exactly the kind of project he loved—one that came with a very high salary and very little work—he signed on and The Cannonball Run became a reality in 1981, where his character followed in the director’s footprints and raced dressed as a paramedic driving an ambulance.

The problem for Ruddy was that the money earned from the Run films paled in comparison to the money lost by the movies Reynolds and Needham made separately following Run II. He could get a third film made, but at a fraction of the budget of the originals, which hadn’t been too costly to begin with.

It speaks to the nature of such things that Run and its 1984 sequel are nowhere near as good as the films that preceded them, but managed—due to their relative star power—to quickly and easily eclipse them in terms of public recognition. Like the other films, they’re much more about the racers than the race (in all of the CCFFR movies, the actual victory is presented more as an afterthought than a traditional climax), but Needham’s weaknesses as a filmmaker (namely that he was always more interested in organizing the nightly parties back at the hotel than he was worrying about what was being shot) give the Run films (especially the sequel) a slightly rushed and desperate “whatever sticks” aura, which only ever works when things actually stick.

But both films made a fuck-ton of money (at the expense of the reputations of many involved) and it seemed inevitable that a third one would be on its way. The problem for Ruddy was that the money earned from the Run films paled in comparison to the money lost by the movies Reynolds and Needham made separately following Run II. He could get a third film made, but at a fraction of the budget of the originals, which hadn’t been too costly to begin with. Needless to say, neither the star nor the director was willing to endure the humiliation of a pay cut to work on the third entry of a successful franchise and they both passed.

Enter Canada.

Though the tax shelter years that had seen Canadian exploitation film production boom throughout the late 70s and early 80s had ended, the strength of the American dollar over the Canadian still made our snowy white paradise a mecca for budget-conscious producers. No longer able to afford the all-star American luxuries that made the first two Run films so fun to make, Ruddy now had to turn to their cheaper Canadian equivalents to get the film made and, to do this, he went with what SHOULD have been a good bet and plucked talent straight out of the greatest comedic work to rise from above the 49th parallel—“SCTV.”

A sitcom director with the fourth Police Academy movie already under his belt, Jim Drake had directed nine episodes of “SCTV Network 90,” which made him an appealing choice to lure in not only John Candy (who by this time had already starred in many of his most famous roles), but fellow alums Eugene Levy and Joe Flaherty. Michael Short (Martin’s brother), a former “SCTV” scribe, was hired to write the film and he came up with a clever conceit to explain why the cast of this third film varied so dramatically from the previous two.

Short’s script began with a politically ambitious police chief ordering a raid the night before the start of the race, sending all of the regulars to jail and leaving the car owners scrambling to find replacement drivers. Short also threw in allusions to other films, including a scary chase between Candy and a never-shown big rig driver straight out of Spielberg’s Duel (1971), and attempted to make up for the casual sexism of the first two films (in her autobiography, Adrienne Barbeau describes her disappointment in learning that, despite her character winning the first film’s race, the entire arc of her character could be found in the raising and lowering of her jumpsuit’s zipper) by turning the two sexy women racers, Shari Belafonte and Edmonton-born Flash Gordon star Melody Anderson, into scientific geniuses who use their inventions throughout the proceedings (a sub-plot the finished film sadly abandons almost immediately).

Unfortunately, the budget and location prevented the production from luring any of the original stars (save one) to cameo in the film. “M*A*S*H”’s Jamie Farr proved to be the only actor willing (read: desperate) enough to cross the border to appear in the third film, which rendered Short’s opening conceit pointless, since it depends on seeing characters we recognize to work. Instead, what we see is a bunch of people we don’t know get arrested and replaced by other people we don’t know, which feels like pointless filler in a film that will ultimately feel like a stultifying 10-hour mini-series packed into 90 minutes of movie.

…what we see is a bunch of people we don’t know get arrested and replaced by other people we don’t know, which feels like pointless filler in a film that will ultimately feel like a stultifying 10-hour mini-series packed into 90 minutes of movie.

The finished film is that most terrifying of entities—a comedy in which there is not a single earned laugh. Even the first two films managed to rouse up one or two memorable moments (Valerie Perrine’s cameo in the first Run is borderline brilliant), but something happened here that drained away all the funny and left something dreary, desperate and depressing in its place.

And I would argue that Canada is the culprit to blame for this. All of the Canadians involved in the production have proven their talent throughout their careers (save maybe Drake, the director, whose good work seems to be the exception rather than the rule), but in this instance they found themselves not playing to their strengths, but instead attempting to replicate something uniquely American in tone and spirit.

Needham’s films resonated as much as they did with their intended audience because Needham WAS that audience. He found the movies he made to be funnier than anyone else in the world (as evidenced by his commentary track on the first film, where the time is evenly split between his waxing rhapsodic about the jokes and cars), but the same cannot be said for the crew assembled for this film. It’s clear everyone involved was just there for the paycheck.

Except maybe Donna Dixon.

Ever watch a film and notice that someone is clearly trying harder than everyone else and you start rooting for them, if only because their effort makes their scenes just a little bit more watchable? Such is the case with Dixon (a classic blond beauty best known for the 80s films she made with her husband, Dan Aykroyd), who plays the drama-prone Marilyn Monroe-ish actress/model tasked to accompany Candy along the race. She fully invests in the character and makes you wish such an inspired comic creation appeared in a much better movie (although it says a lot about the film’s many miscalculations that she’s paired with one of cinema’s greatest comic character actors and HE’s the one playing the straight man).

How bad is the movie? So bad that the decision was made not to release it as The Cannonball Run III, but to instead pretend it was a completely new film called Speed Zone. When a movie isn’t considered worthy of following the legacy of two Hal Needham movies, you know things are well and truly fucked up.

I mean, even the legendarily disastrous Smokey and the Bandit III got to keep its name, but that’s definitely a story for another article.

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