The Trans-American Grand Prix is a race from Los Angeles to New York non-stop, and it's fast, deadly and highly illegal with a hundred thousand dollar prize at the end of it. Disgraced racing driver Coy "Cannonball" Buckman (David Carradine) awakes after a nightmare where he was shot at the wheel of his car; he checks his watch and sees it's time to leave, and he does so without waking his parole officer girlfriend (Veronica Hamel). After reading his goodbye note, she catches up with him at the starting line, warning him that so much as a speeding fine will send him back to jail, so he invites her along for the ride, and she reluctantly agrees. The police are on their way to break up the race, and without further ado, the cars speed off...
Written by the director Paul Bartel and future blockbuster producer Don Simpson, Cannonball was part of the cycle of of great race movies that was started by the low budget success of Death Race 2000, another Bartel movie produced by Roger Corman (who also appears briefly, along with a host of New World behind-the-scenes talent). Obviously the inspiration for The Cannonball Run - the title is undeniably similar - it came out about the same time as the more expensive The Gumball Rally, but while that was an out and out comedy, Cannonball suffers from a tone that is never certain how funny or serious it's supposed to be.
Buckman's fellow competitors are a motley bunch to keep things interesting. One driver is a family man who cheats by flying his car in a cargo plane to New York and spending the time in a motel room with his mistress. Another is supposed to be driving an old couple's Lincoln to New York without a scratch, so you can guess how that car ends up. Next are a teenage couple in the girl's father's car. Then there are the three girls, led by Mary Woronov, who are driving a big blue van and using their feminine wiles to get what they want. And let's not forget the caricatured German driver (James Keach) who constantly talks to himself in broken English as he motors along.
But Buckman's chief rival is Cade Redman (a villainous Bill McKinney) who is determined to run Buckman off the road, and is accompanied by a country singer, Perman Waters (Gerrit Graham) and his manager to pay his way. The scenes inside Redman's car sum up the confused presentation: Redman is obviously a dangerous customer, but Perman is a comedic figure, constantly trying to broadcast his songs over a microphone to the local radio stations. It's no surprise when the irritated Redman eventually throws the singer's guitar out of the window.
Some of the humour is funny, as when gangster Bartel (yes, he acts in this too) has Buckman's untrustworthy brother (Dick Miller) beaten up as he serenades him in the style of Cole Porter. The cops are portrayed as idiots, as expected, just for that anti-authority stance, and to provide the girls with foils to their antics, plus star Carradine gets to show off some kung fu moves in a couple of fight scenes. The stunts resemble footage from a demolition derby - well, a demolition derby with extremely explosive cars anyway, and there's a completely gratuitous pile up at the end. Strong on action, but repetitive with it, Cannonball is diverting, but should have concentrated on the comedy angle; all those deaths just make the film uneven. Still, the fine cast almost makes up for it. Music by David A. Axelrod.