The Film: 5/5
There's a moment during the audio commentary for Used Cars where star Kurt Russell, during a discussion of the film's lackluster advertising campaign and theatrical release, mentions reading a review comparing Used to another big studio comedy playing at the same time - the original Airplane! directed by the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams. In the review the critic, who is never mentioned by name, states that Airplane! may have had twice as many laughs as Used Cars but the laughs in Used were twice as funny. Surprisingly for a film about unscrupulous car salesmen using all means at their disposal - both legal and illegal - to drive each other out of business while peddling the most poorly-assembled and maintenanced automobiles known to civilized humanity, Used Cars is a smooth-running ride that never breaks down and clearly values quality over quantity.
Rudy Russo (Russell) works as a used car salesman at an Arizona lot operated by Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), a kindly old man with a heart condition whose business is located directly across a busy street from a slicker car lot owned by his devious twin brother Roy L. (also Warden). Though he enjoys scraping by on a pittance thanks to a job that requires him to con easily-swayed rubes into buying cheap junkers for absurd prices, Rudy has ambitions to become a crooked politician. All he needs to buy his way onto the local Republican ticket is $60,000 and his future is set. Before Luke can loan him the rest of the money the old timer keels over dead after being literally driven to a heart attack by one of Roy L.'s goons. Rudy employs the help of superstitious fellow salesman Jeff (Gerrit Graham) and Vietnam flashback-prone mechanic Jim (Frank McRae) to hide Luke's corpse inside of a 1958 Edsel they bury behind the lot and get enough new customers to keep the business booming and out of the clutches of Roy L., who greedily plots to take over the lot and demolish it so that he can profit from the construction of a new freeway that will make him the top used car salesman in the Southwest.
Rudy devises a number of absurd schemes to increase sales at the lot, from hiring tech geeks Freddie (David L. Lander) and Eddie (Michael McKean) to interrupt widely-watched football games and Presidential addresses to broadcast live commercials to using strippers to dance on the cars and entice sex-starved potential customers. His plan appears to be a success until Luke's estranged daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon) arrives at the lot one day hoping for a reconciliation with the father she hasn't spoken to in a decade. Rudy attempts to keep her distracted until he can raise enough money to buy his political future but in the process the two of them fall in love, which makes things even more complicated. Without spoiling the third act I will say that it involves shotguns, explosions, an impatient hanging judge (Al Lewis) with an itch to get in a round of golf before the end of the day, and a final charge through the desert with Rudy and Barbara leading a class of inexperienced high school driver's education students driving a fleet of battered cars in a finale even more epic than all of the Lord of the Rings movies combined.
This side-splitting 1980 screwball comedy that eviscerated free market principles and the apathetic American way of life with cacklingly demented satirical glee was one of the earliest films made by future Oscar honoree-slash-motion capture animation champion Robert Zemeckis and his former collaborator Bob Gale. Gale, who also produced Used Cars along with Steven Spielberg (who helped set the movie up at Columbia after Universal, which co-financed his Zemeckis and Gale-scripted comedy dud 1941, passed on the project) and John Milius, had worked primarily with Zemeckis since their days as part of the "USC Mafia" at the University of Southern California's prestigious filmmaking school. After teaming up for 1978's Zemeckis-directed loving comedic tribute to the Beatles I Wanna Hold Your Hand (also distributed by Universal, the same studio that also foisted that horrid Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie on the paying public that very year) they concocted the story that became Used Cars after Milius first suggested to them a comedy about used car salesmen working outside of Las Vegas that could possibly star George Hamilton. You might say "what the F--?!" to that idea now, but Hamilton used to be a big deal before he tanned himself into a human Slim Jim.
Zemeckis and Gale took their powerhouse producers' threadbare pitch and built upon it an unruly farce so crammed with ideas, incidents, and crazy details it was like an issue of Mad Magazine come to life. It was released to theaters without much fanfare at the tail end of a decade where anarchic comedy ruled the box office with an iron fist clutching a half-empty can of Rolling Rock. Only two years before National Lampoon's Animal House proved that R-rated comedy could pack in audiences and funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into the coffers of whatever studio was willing to take the plunge. I never cared much for Animal House though. It's a pretty funny movie but outside of John Belushi's performance as Bluto there isn't much of it worth remembering. My heart always belonged to the likes of George Roy Hill's violent, vulgar hockey comedy Slap Shot with its lovable band of blue collar Neanderthals unleashing their repressed feelings of helplessness in outrageously brutal style.
I first discovered Used Cars about ten years ago when I picked up the DVD on sale from the long-shuttered Borders Books & Music. My first viewing wasn't a life-changing experience, but it was clear when the film came to a close that it was officially one of my favorite big screen comedies of all time. I was even more surprised that this tackily inspired satire came from the minds of the same men who birthed the Back to the Future franchise. It's easy to forget that prior to making it big with their blockbuster trilogy of time-traveling comic misadventures Zemeckis and Gale were writing some of the darkest humor it was possible to get away with in the dying days of the New Hollywood.
The story is built around its lead character Rudy Russo, one of cinema's most charismatic and lovable sleazebags, and casting Kurt Russell in the role was a stroke of genius on the part of the filmmakers. At the time Russell was still trying to leave behind his early years headlining inane Disney comedies as a lad and had earned critical raves for his performances as unhinged Texas sniper Charles Whitman in the TV movie The Deadly Tower and as the undisputed king of rock and roll in the celebrated television miniseries Elvis. The latter film marked the first time Russell had teamed up with the director whose films would eventually define the young actor's future career in the eyes of his growing fanbase, John Carpenter. But playing the part of Rudy Russo in Used Cars would present two interesting challenges for Russell - starring in his first lead role for the silver screen as an adult, in a movie geared mostly towards adults no less, and making a selfish, opportunistic degenerate like Russo into a sympathetic hero audiences could rally behind.
It would be the first honest test of his abilities as both a leading man and a mature actor and though Used Cars didn't soar to the top of the box office charts at the time of its release there is no question that Russell's performance is one of the film's greatest assets. It also remains one of the highlights of his acting career, a high-wire juggling routine of potent seriousness and brazen comedic attitude. You might wonder what kind of human being actually aspires to become a corrupt politico, but Rudy is our hero and a genuine underdog and you have to respect a man with real career goals who won't screw over his friends to attain them. Russell plays every aspect of the salesman's complicated human nature with energetic vitality and a complete willingness to hurl himself headlong (sometimes literally) into a scene no matter what its tone might be. He makes you love Rudy Russo even though the most moral and sane of us would rightfully decry his tactics and
Russell also has terrific chemistry with the rest of the cast, an ensemble of professional character actors fully prepared for anything Zemeckis and Gale throw at them. The MVP of the supporting players is undoubtedly the great Jack Warden in the dual roles of Luke and Roy L., the polar opposite brothers Fuchs. Warden shines brighter than a supernova in both parts though his performance as Luke naturally has to end before the conclusion of the first act in order to set the escalating plot in motion. But in the character's brief screen time Warden dutifully conveys Luke's infallible, warm-hearted personality with relative ease. It's just that the actor had to have a blast playing the utterly despicable Roy L. because that role offers scenery chewing opportunities any seasoned performer would sever an appendage without the benefit of anesthetic to get their hands on. Roy L. is more than the film's villain; he's Rudy Russo's evil alternate universe reflection, a disturbing glimpse into our hero's future should he continue on the path that he believes to be his destiny. Warden digs deep into the character and wears Roy L.'s bloated, loud-suited exterior like a second skin, selling his sorry bastard of a personality with every drop of scummy devotion a decent used car salesman would use to peddle their rusted, broken-down inventory.
Gerrit Graham and Frank McRae generate generous amounts of throat-scarring broad comedy guffaws as Rudy's pals and co-workers. Graham (Phantom of the Paradise) plays the superstitious pussy hound salesman Jeff with bug-eyed, flailing-limbed aplomb and makes for the greatest unlikely wingman you could want, while McRae (48 Hrs.) is quite literally a force of nature at times. Yelling his comic book word balloon dialogue, impatiently manhandling wishy-washy customers, and running through walls to chase the lot's cuddly mascot dog, McRae's unstable mechanic Jim is less of a human being and more of a piece of construction equipment one shouldn't operate under the influence of alcohol or cough syrup - albeit one given a pulse and a boiler suit as sickeningly green as the dense, oppressive foliage of the Vietnam jungle. Both actors are a memorable delight and Zemeckis and Gale give them plenty of chances to flex their considerable comedic chops. Graham's scene involving using the dog to sell a car to a dull-witted suburban dad (Claude Earl Jones, Bride of Re-Animator) and his screaming brood of pint-sized jock kids is one of the funniest scenes in any comedy ever made.
Taking the position of the film's sole female character (and by default, the female lead) despite making her entrance nearly an hour in is Deborah Harmon (Bachelor Party) as Barbara. Essentially the innocent set adrift in a sea of scam artists and shady operators, Barbara truly comes across as her father's daughter and the one person genuinely pure of heart in the entire story. Harmon doesn't necessarily stand out because she has little to do but be the straight (wo)man but she brings plenty of beauty and brains to off-set the character's natural naivety. She makes a wonderful foil and romantic interest for Russell as well.
The rest of the cast is filled out by committed performers like SCTV perennial Joe Flaherty as an assistant district attorney on Roy L.'s payroll, Harry Northup (Taxi Driver) and Michael Talbott (First Blood) as the dastardly Fuchs brother's hired goons, Woodrow Parfrey (Planet of the Apes) as a fussy driver's education teacher, Back to the Future's Marc McClure and Wendie Jo Sperber as two of his students, longtime western supporting player Dub Taylor (The Wild Bunch) as a Republican Party leader, Aussie sex goddess and Penthouse Pet Cheryl Rixon as an actress hired for one of Rudy's commercials, Laverne and Shirley's own Lenny and Squiggy, David L. Lander and Michael McKean, as the know-it-all techie nerds, The Munsters' own Grandpa Al Lewis as the prickly, impatient judge, and Mexican actor and filmmaker Alfonso Arau (El Topo) as Rudy's greasy, crotch-tugging car contact.
Cinematographer Donald M. Morgan, who shot John Carpenter's Christine and Starman, captures the dusty desolation of the film's arid Arizona locations and the expansive desert landscapes that host the epic extended chase sequence in the finale with gorgeous attention to light and detail. The editing was done by Spielberg's longtime cutter of choice Michael Kahn and the results demonstrate his fantastic eye for pacing and maintaining a balance in shifting tones. The music score composed by Patrick Williams (Cry-Baby) is suitably comical and patriotic, but with the last cast in a cynical light.
In the end though, the real heroes of Used Cars are its creators. With Robert Zemeckis in the director's chair and Bob Gale riding shotgun on co-writing and producing duties every scene of the film is unmistakably theirs. Each line of comedically nasty quotable dialogue, every explosive set-piece, there can be no denying whose visual and verbal voices are behind this riotous comic masterpiece. Zemeckis and Gale make it all sing to the rafters with love and smarts. The greatest compliment one can give to a film like Used Cars is that even though it runs 113 minutes (a length few comedy filmmakers working today, with the exception of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, can get away with) you are left wanting much, much more. Now I need to watch it again.
Twilight Time does it again. Their Blu-ray transfer of Used Cars is a wonder to behold for those of us long reluctant to give up those worn VHS and DVD copies. Presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio and remastered in 1080p high-definition, the film looks like it had been recalled to the factory and given a complete overhaul. The print quality is remarkably clean and the grain content has been reduced to a bare minimum without compromising the texture and integrity of the film. Details are sharp and plentiful, the colors are appropriately garish and bring out the most in the beat-up junkers on the New Deal lot and the atrocious fashions of the period. The previous Region 1 DVD featured a Dolby two-channel audio track that replicated the film's original mono soundtrack from its theatrical exhibition and returns here in the form of an English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track. Twilight Time has also given home theater owners an additional option by including a newly-created 24-bit English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Depending on your home viewing set-up either track will suffice as they both feature strong volume levels for every component of the final mix, especially in the music and sound effects departments. If you're watching this on a standard television with no additional speakers you won't find much difference in the two tracks. English subtitles have also been included.
Most of the extra features have been ported over from Sony's 2002 Region 1 DVD edition. Naturally Twilight Time had to throw in one of their customary isolated score tracks, but for this release they have given us not just a track featuring the soundtrack by Patrick Williams but also one that presents for the first time the original score that was composed by Oscar-winner Ernest Gold (Judgment at Nuremberg, Cross of Iron) before being discarded by Zemeckis and Gale for reasons they discuss elsewhere on the disc. Gold's score is definitely from the school of epic Hollywood soundtrack composition whereas Williams, a television veteran with few notable film credits to his name, fashioned cues that kept the pomposity restricted to where it really belonged and contributed more action-heavy numbers. Fans of the film can now judge for themselves which score is the best and Twilight Time should be commended for allowing Gold's work to finally be heard.
Zemeckis, Gale, and Russell hold court over a riotous and informative audio commentary that just might be one of the best ever recorded. Held over from the previous DVD, the track is dominated often by Gale and Russell but Zemeckis still has plenty to say and the trio pull no punches in recounting the chaotic making of Used Cars, laughing uproariously during the film's funnier moments and discussing how they came to be, and wondering aloud if they would do it all over again if they could (Zemeckis definitely wouldn't by his own admission, which is a shame because he's an underrated comedy director). History has proven time and again that when your audio commentary involves Kurt Russell you're guaranteed a great time at the very least, and Used Cars is no exception.
The commentary is the most recently created supplement as everything else on this disc dates back to the film's release. An outtakes reel (4 minutes) possibly taken from a workprint source reveals a lot of clever bloopers and alternate takes of scenes, including the infamous "dick nose glasses" version of the football game parking lot scene. During principal photography Russell starred in a commercial for the Darner Chrysler-Plymouth dealership where the movie was filmed and that 32-second ad is presented here in standard definition. Russell also participated in a radio interview to promote the film (5 minutes) and seven radio spots (8 minutes) are provided as well. Four still galleries (Action and Stunts, Unused Ad Concepts, Behind the Scenes, and Posters and Lobby Cards), the original theatrical trailer presented in high-definition (2 minutes), and a catalog for other DVDs and Blu-rays available from Twilight Time round out the disc-based extras. A slim booklet of liner notes written by Julie Kirgo is included inside the Blu-ray case.
A cheerfully amoral comedy classic that stands the test of time like the strongest American-made automobile, Used Cars is so good that no price tag can be placed on its brilliance. It's the kind of gutsy, whip-smart comedy I wish Robert Zemeckis still made because few filmmakers other than Edgar Wright, Adam McKay, and Spike Jonze can make films as funny and innovative as Used Cars in this day and age. Armed with a terrific upgraded video and audio presentation and the bonus features from the excellent previous DVD release (with a few choice additions exclusive to this disc), Twilight Time's Blu-ray is one of the best reissues of a classic you'll see this year and an absolute recommendation for anyone in the mood for a comedy that never fails to bring the funny. Trust me.