Consider Robert Zemeckis’ Used Cars (1980) as a prelude to all the shamelessly foul-mouthed and sexist whack-tac-u-lar silliness that permeated a fair percentage of comedies from the decade. Class will out, perhaps. But Used Cars is more arrogantly funny than slick and stylish; a C-grade premise, given B-grade wit, some mildly distracting tits and ass humor, and, an A-list cast to tickle the funny bone. In spots, the movie has its own charm and continues to hold up spectacularly well, despite tastes having mercifully moved on from this sort of addlepated crotch-kicking. In some ways, Used Cars is very much a transitional piece, starring 60’s Disney brat, Kurt Russell, crossed over to the other side of adolescent immaturity. He’s a man now, and of sufficient age to forego baseball bats and tennis-shoed computers for a healthy red-blooded all-American male’s appetite for cleavage. Russell’s performance literally saves Used Cars from the compactor; his congenial slickster, just the thing the movie needs to keep its pedestrian plot getting flat tires.
Used Cars straddles the comedy chasm, between the 70’s penchant for gross-out raunch a la Animal House (1978) and the wittier jovialities in Coming to America (1988). There are remnants of the old regime at play; perky breasts and ample buttocks gratuitously bobbing in close-up – even a wayward glimpse of Russell’s own studly loins slipping into his BVD’s; the film’s waning ode to the proliferation and mainstreaming of art house porn a la the likes of Hugh Hefner. Let’s not get carried away. Used Cars never aspires to be highbrow. Nor is it marginally interested in being a truly great comedy; the screenplay co-written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale is little more than threadbare – barely enough to hang some truly juvenile to downright tasteless sight gags. Its’ slap and tickle, with a wink-wink/nudge-nudge has not dated all that well. Indeed, Used Cars today plays more like a relic from a time capsule buried too long in the Arizona sands. That said, there are decidedly some good things to say about the movie and some highlights to recommend a revisit to this car lot.
Lest we forget, here is a movie about three guys circling the proverbial porcelain bowl of life; their sole purpose to get laid, rich and famous (not necessarily in that order). Used Cars is what one might expect of a typical 80’s comedy; crass commercialism with more than a touch of art house nudity run amuck. The movie caters to the lowest common denominator in adolescent, navel-gazing: visual masturbation, if you prefer, with a wellspring of offensive laughs thrown in for good measure, if for no other reason, than to watch these misguided fools prop up the ridged corpse of former boss, Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) and send him on his way in a gasoline-soaked clunker, careening towards an electrical transformer – with predictable results. Could this be the moment, director Ted Kotcheff came up with the idea for Weekend at Bernie’s (1989)?
In retrospect, Used Cars typifies Robert Zemeckis’ movie-making career; a director unashamedly pursuing ‘mainstream’ pop-u-tainment: a decidedly refreshing departure from his contemporaries, many of who believed themselves to be loftier than the time-honored pursuit to entertain as much of the audience as possible; instead, still going gaga over the French New Wave, while indulging their own existentialist agendas. No one could accuse Used Cars of aspiring to any such chichi nonsense. In fact, the film harks back to a simpler time, primarily because Zemeckis’ heroes were not Jean Luc Goddard or Francois Truffaut, but rather James Bond and Walt Disney. Used Cars teeters between the overt sexism of the former and family-oriented ‘feel good’ of the latter. It also looks ahead to a decade’s worth of equally engaging, mind-numbing silliness. Of course, Zemeckis cannot take all of the credit for starting this trend. Fellow film maker John Milius (who also became Used Cars producer), initially came up with the concept of a war between two used car lot owners.
Like so many implausibly scripted scenarios from this decade, Used Cars manages to weave its magic spell on the audience almost by accident; forgoing the niceties, ramping up its absurdities and introducing a host of memorably ridiculous characters into the mix. For starters, there’s Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell); the brash, smooth-talking salesman, working for Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), the dog-eared proprietor of this seedy little nothing that is in stiff competition with his infinitely more successful – and ruthless - brother, Roy (also played by Warden). Russo’s alright. He may be enterprising and ambitious (his dreams of becoming a state senator leading to all sorts of subversive references regarding America’s then current political quagmire), but his heart’s in the right place…well, sort of. What can we tell you about the guy? As a product of pure capitalism, Russo wants better than what he has. Who among us does not – or rather, did not in the go-go/spend-spend 80’s?
Russo can chase his dreams with confidence; relying on coworkers, Jeff (Gerrit Graham) and garage mechanic, Jim (Frank McRae) to help lead the charge and back him up. Russo had a good egg in Luke. Unfortunately, Luke dies of a heart attack before he can contribute the necessary $10,000 Russo needs to bribe his way into a run for political office. Regrettably, the boys have little time to mourn their beloved boss. Seems Roy is power mad to possess Luke’s lot; the pressure mounting after he is informed by his high-priced mouthpiece, Sam Slaton (Joe Flaherty) that the mayor intends to pave the new interstate right through the middle of his own car lot. The wrinkle is, of course, that Roy will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, evening hiring ex-demolition derby driver, Mickey (Michael Talbott), to recklessly drive Luke's prized 1957 Chevrolet. This actually caused Luke’s heart attack, though not before Luke tore his brother’s garage insignia off Mickey’s shoulder, clearly identifying him as his killer and Roy’s employee.
The plot thickens as Russo, Jeff and Jim frantically elect to bury Luke in his 1958 Edsel, landfilling the pit behind the lot to conceal the fact Luke has actually died, while telling Roy his brother has gone on an impromptu fishing vacation to Miami Beach; thus, staving off his imminent takeover. Freddie Paris (David L. Landers) and Eddie Winslow (Michael McKean) – a sort of Mutt and Jeff pair of techo-terrorists – are employed by Russo to illegally intercept the local TV broadcast signal, interrupting a football game in progress so Russo and the boys can publicize their sale with a sexy model, Margaret (Cheryl Rixon, who predictably winds up indignantly naked on live television). The appearance of bouncy breast tissue in primetime is enough to get the bumble-brain redneck sect down to the lot for a few choice sales. The boys use every trick in the book to hook their clientele. Jeff even has Luke’s loyal mascot, Toby fake getting run over to force a sale through.
Meanwhile, Russo swaps out a consignment of legitimate vehicles Luke intended to donate to the local high school for their driver’s ed’ program with the vast assortment of junk populating the lot. Infuriated by their newfound popularity, Roy attempts to woo customers back to his lot by hiring a circus, complete with flame-throwers, clowns and camel rides for the kiddies. It works until Russo debuts his sixty-cent striptease; luring the adult male buyers across the street: more ‘T’, more ‘A’. What can I tell you? Sex sells. At this rate, Russo should have his $10,000 in no time. Except he hasn’t anticipated the arrival of Luke’s estranged daughter, Barbara Jane (Deborah Harmon): immediately mistaken for a consumer alert inspector by Russo, then quickly taken to dinner and almost as immediately to bed by him, to keep her in the dark – literally and figuratively - about their latest shyster’s scheme; interrupting President Carter’s address for another commercial endorsement; this one showing Jeff, disguised as Wild Bill Hickok, vandalizing several ‘high priced’ cars on Roy’s lot.
In retaliation, Roy storms into Luke’s office, assaults Jeff and discovers the secret resting place of his brother. Jeff alerts Russo to the fact the police are on their way and together with Jim, the boy’s dig up Luke, rigging his car to drive at full speed, and in full view, past the gathered onlookers, right into a power transformer, resulting in a cataclysmic explosion. Problem solved, right? Wrong! For Barbara, having spent the night at Russo’s, has discovered a recorded conversation between Russo and Jim on his answering machine where the pair all but admit to burying Luke in their own backyard. This revelation breaks Barbara’s heart. After all, she was beginning to like Russo and thought the feeling was mutual. In wounded retaliation, she promptly fires Russo and his cohorts; the trio resorting to selling junk at garage sales to make ends meet. In the meantime, Barbara attempts to keep her father’s memory alive by starring in her own promos for the lot. Roy, however, gets hold of this raw footage, altering its content and then filing trumped-up charges of false advertising against her.
Russo improves his chances for getting into politics by betting his entire savings on a football game. Despite the odds, he wins. However, when Russo learns Barbara may go to jail if she loses her court case, he convinces her to lie on the witness stand, telling Judge H. H. Harrison (Al Lewis) she does have – as Roy’s doctored commercial claims - ‘miles’ of cars for sale. Russo uses his betting money to buy 250 cars from spurious, but good-natured Mexican dealer, Manuel (Alfonso Arau), hiring student drivers to bring the convoy of wrecks to the lot. Roy tries to prevent this delivery but fails, the resulting inventory measuring end to end at just a little over a mile. Having defeated Roy once and for all, Sam informs Barbara and Russo – who are on the cusp of a reconciliation – that their car lot is now the biggest dealership in town.
Used Cars is a spectacularly silly affair; teeming with the sort of bargain-basement, entertainment sell-out mentality that continues to find favor today, though, arguably, now only as an artifact from another bygone era. There’s some cleverness to be had. But the exchanges of dialogue are hopelessly marred by an overkill of profanity; the weight in shock value diffused after only the first few minutes of run time, leaving the rest of Used Cars a fairly potty-mouthed affair. To a certain generation and age bracket this white squall of vulgarity will undeniably amuse. But it does tend to wear out its welcome long before the movie reaches its predictable conclusion. Again, Kurt Russell is the big selling feature, a far better actor than this movie gives him credit. Russell cakewalks his way through the script; capable of emitting equal portions of ball-busting ego and guileless charm. When he is on the screen – which is pretty much always – Used Cars has unstoppable momentum; like a train wreck one is powerless to stop but compelled to watch.
The rest of the cast doesn’t fare nearly as well. As Luke Fuchs, Jack Warden exudes the sort of warm-hearted sage wisdom we generally respect and admire. As Roy, Warden has to play the proverbial prick. He does it with bombast (I’ll give him that) but without guts or conviction; Roy Fuchs coming across as just another stock cliché of the middle-aged brute with a bad dye job and comb over. In retrospect, Gerrit Graham’s film career never matured beyond Used Cars. He’s rather clumsy in the role of the affable sidekick who can’t keep his zipper up; already had his taste of walking the line as the lead in Phantom of Paradise (1974). After Used Cars, it’s strictly character parts for Graham, mostly on television; a sad waste of a better talent.
We can thank the movie gods director Robert Zemeckis’ career did mature beyond Used Cars. In the interim since, Zemeckis has given us an eclectic mix of ‘mainstream’ entertainments; Romancing The Stone (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Death Becomes Her (1992) and Forrest Gump (1994) among them: movies likely to remain beloved and revisited by fans and scholars for many decades yet to come. Used Cars isn’t among this distinguished roster. In some ways, it almost belies being part of Zemeckis’ canon. There just isn’t enough ingenuity to cut through all the abject stupidity on display herein. Even with all its flaws, Used Cars isn’t awful. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t plan on revisiting this title anytime soon. But at least I can say it wasn’t a waste of two hours of my life that I can never get back!
There’s a lot more reason to cheer about Sony’s superb 1080p transfer, Used Cars getting its Blu-ray release via Twilight Time. With the exception of one unexpected, and rather perplexingly out of focus and grain-riddled insert of Jack Warden as Luke Fuchs, the rest of this hi-def image is grade-A spectacular. Colors are ultra-vibrant. Flesh tones look occasionally pinkish, but otherwise fairly natural. Contrast is bang on and film grain has been accurately reproduced. Fine detail leaps off the screen (as it always should in 1080p), showcasing Donald M. Morgan’s cinematography to its very best advantage.
While the level of pleasure derived from the movie remains debatable, we can unequivocally state you are going to love – LOVE – the way this disc looks. It’s that simple. The other revelation here is the sound. Sony has afforded Used Cars a 5.1 remix that offers some startling clarity and exceptional separation. The sound of screeching tires and Luke’s beloved Edsel exploding into a ball of bright orange flame is complimented by some fairly aggressive sound effects that will definitely give your speakers a workout. Dialogue is crisp and Patrick Williams’ underscore and use of pop tunes are spread across all five channels with very effective spatiality.
Extras include TT’s isolated score, plus an alternative score by Dennis McCarthy and even, unused cues – wow! We also get a fantastic audio commentary from Zemeckis, co-writer, Bob Gale, and Kurt Russell. I’ll just go on record as saying I think I enjoyed this trio’s reminiscences more than I did the actual movie. Finally, we get radio interviews, radio spots and a theatrical trailer. Why Used Cars rates such a hefty package of extra features is, frankly, beyond me, but it’s extremely rewarding to see Sony Home Entertainment once again taking the high road, the time and making the effort to see their movie heritage is well preserved and documented for future generations to explore and appreciate. Very well done, indeed!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)