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Cannonball (1976) is the second and lesser known racing film by director Paul Bartel. It’s also overlooked as one of the films that was inspired by the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. But Cannonball remains the best film of that slew of racing pictures. And although it lacks the insanity and inspired violence of Death Race 2000 (1975) it features instead a more grounded and human narrative.

Cannonball follows its titular racer (David Carradine) across the country. The race tries his sense of duty, honor and friendship along the way. The episodic structure of the film paints a portrait of Carradine’s racer who is torn between his need to win and his personal relationships. Cannonball is a classic anti-hero and it is his story that propels the film and carries the less dramatic and comedic episodes involving the other racers.

Dick Miller as Carradine’s brother steals every scene as he negotiates with a crooning Paul Bartel over a wager on the outcome of the race. The brothers are at odds and as such their conflicting interests give the film all of its tension. Miller’s compulsive gambler is a sympathetic and tragic figure. Miller gives him a depth that seems almost out of place in a film of comic archetypes, one-off characters and a plethora of car crashes.

What’s fun about Cannonball is essentially what made The Cannon Ball Run (1981) such a success; its cast. But where The Cannon Ball Run features countless celebrity cameos, Cannonball offers an all-star cast of Roger Corman regulars (including Corman himself). Cannonball director Paul Bartel plays a gangster with ambitions of being the next Cole Porter while frequent collaborator Mary Woronov is piloting a van of bombshells across country in the race. David Carradine’s brother Robert also appears in the movie as a racer while Phantom Of The Paradise (1974) star Gerrit Graham sings his way over state lines. Then there are the bit parts by Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese and Sylvester Stallone (the latter two are only seen eating fried chicken). Ironically, Joe Dante cameos as a mechanic when in real life Dante does not know how to drive.

Cannonball is exactly what New World Pictures always did best. It’s a sleazy, go-for-broke series of spectacles built around a cast of seasoned regulars. It is one of those films where it is as fun to watch as it must have been to make. There is a real sense of community behind Cannonball that elevates it to the upper echelons of Corman’s productions from the seventies.