Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) is a used car salesman who works for Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden). Fuchs' twin brother Roy L. owns the car showroom across the street, and he wants Luke's property to secure a deal for a freeway development - knowing Luke has a weak heart, he causes Luke's death so he will inherit the land. But he reckons without Rudy's quick wits and soon he has a fight on his hands...
If you're looking for lean, economical plotting, look no further than director Robert Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale's script for Used Cars, because there's nothing extraneous here, every single plot point serves the comedy. Kurt Russell shows a comic real flair as the fast talking, duplicitous salesman and he's backed up by a fine supporting cast. The humour may be in bad taste, but it's gleeful air is infectious.
Almost every character has their own quirk. Jeff (Gerrit Graham) is superstitious to a fault (with a real dislike of red cars) which leads to a good scene where he deliberately loses a bet on a football game by spilling salt and walking under a ladder. Jim (Frank McRae) falls asleep and swears colourfully (the swearing in this film is great, incidentally). Even the strict judge (Al Lewis) has his desk adorned by a toy gallows, electric chair and guillotine.
The manner which Rudy and co. manipulate things to go in their favour are clever, especially the advertising scams where they interrupt first a football game and then the presidential address with commercials featuring gratuitous nudity and destruction of their rival's cars, respectively. When Luke's long lost daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon) turns up, they pull the wool over her eyes too, which leads to the grand finale where Rudy gets back in her good books by saving her from prison in spectacular fashion.
Rudy's ambition is to become a politician, seeing that duping people and taking bribes isn't much different from the business he is in anyway - it's the American way! What's nice is that although Barbara makes him become a better person, he still sticks to his scheming habits - couple that with Russell's charm and you don't feel as if there's any cop out by the end. Perhaps it's not consistently funny, but Used Cars is well enough made to win you over and the satirical tone is just right. Music by Patrick Williams.
But come the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, he grew more earnest and consequently less entertaining, although just as successful: Contact, What Lies Beneath, Cast Away and the motion capture animated efforts The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. Flight, The Walk and Allied were also big productions, but failed to have the same cultural impact.
With frequent writing collaborator Bob Gale, Zemeckis also scripted 1941 and Trespass. Horror TV series Tales from the Crypt was produced by him, too.