Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) is a used car salesman who works for Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden); Rudy has aspirations to be a politician that he believes the skills he has honed as a salesman will make him ideal for public office, especially in the area of feathering his own nest. Fuchs' twin brother Roy L. (also Warden) 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 plans to cause 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, which had the satisfaction of witnessing a good show all round, no matter that it was not for all tastes: indeed, at the time when such humour was making huge profits for the likes of Animal House, Airplane! and Caddyshack, this little item notably underperformed. Kurt Russell showed a comic real flair as the fast talking, duplicitous salesman that his Disney movies had hints of, and he's backed up by a fine supporting cast. The humour may be in bad taste, reminiscent of a bawdier version of The Phil Silvers Show on fifties TV. but its 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 is no mere throwaway plot element) which leads to a good scene where he deliberately loses a bet on a football game by spilling salt and walking under a ladder. and other such activities in a bar - the fact this succeeds is as ridiculous as it is amusing. Jim the mechanic (Frank McRae) falls asleep and swears colourfully (the swearing in this film is great and plentiful, incidentally). Even the strict judge (Al Lewis) has his desk adorned by a toy gallows, electric chair and guillotine to divert him during the cases where he is going to hand down a stiff sentence, that is, all of them.
The manner which Rudy and co. manipulate things to go in their favour are refreshingly 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. The political satire amounted to little more than comparing the two parties in America to self-serving, opportunistic and untrustworthy car salesmen, but it was such a resonant notion that it proved irresistible. 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 as Rudy is more aware of how nasty and cutthroat business and politics alike can be, but the conclusion that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em goes down a lot easier when Zemeckis and Gale and their cast are so dedicated to generating laughter. Perhaps it's not consistently funny, but Used Cars is well enough made to win you over, building to an action-packed climax with a land rush of massed cars and the sardonic tone is just right, without a drop of sentimentality to be seen anywhere in its entire running time. No, it wasn't a hit at the time, but as with so many of Russell's movies come the eighties and after, VHS and TV were their saviour: it now enjoys a strong cult following. 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, while true life fantasy tale Welcome to Marwen was a flop.
With frequent writing collaborator Bob Gale, Zemeckis also scripted 1941 and Trespass. Horror TV series Tales from the Crypt was produced by him, too.