Robert Zemeckis didnít achieve substantial commercial success as a director until 1984ís Romancing the Stone. From there, heís enjoyed quite a few hits such as 1988ís Who Framed Roger Rabbit, 1994ís Forrest Gump as well as both What Lies Beneath and Cast Away in 2000. Although his earliest work didnít score at the box office, some of us look back on those flicks with fondness. He debuted in 1978 with I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and I think this remains his most charming and endearing flick. I also remembered 1980ís Used Cars in a positive way.
Iíve seen Hand many times over the last couple of decades, so I know that itís still one of my favorites. As for Cars, however, the picture seems much fuzzier. I recall that I thought it was hilarious when I saw it theatrically, but I was 13 at the time; a lot of things that appear amusing at that age fall flat later in life. After more than 20 years, will I still find anything entertaining about Cars?
Yes and no. Without a doubt, I didnít regard it as the laughfest I recall from my early teen years. I remember really losing it when I saw the movie theatrically; to my younger self, this was some incredibly funny self. Now that Iím old and bitter, the flick did much less for me; I found it to offer a crude but watchable experience.
Used Cars follows the exploits of Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell), a stereotypically sleazy auto salesman who works for Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden). In ill health, Lukeís lot sits across the road from a larger showplace maintained by his estranged brother Roy L. (also Warden). Roy wants to take possession of Lukeís lot, mainly because a newly planned freeway will obliterate Royís place and make Lukeís a very desirable location.
Roy learns this from some illicit political connections. Rather than try to buy out Luke, Roy attempts to get the property the hard way. Since Luke has a bum ticker, Roy sends over a mechanic with demolition derby experience to take a car for a test drive with Luke in the passenger seat. This wild ride has the desired effect and gives Luke a fatal heart attack.
However, Luke didnít count on the opposition heíd receive from Rudy. Russo doesnít know specifically why Roy perpetrated this dastardly deed, but he is sure the surviving Fuchs was behind it, so he knows he needs to keep the lot out of his hands as long as possible. Along with fellow salesman Jeff (Gerrit Graham) and mechanic Jim (Frank McRae), he buries Luke on the lot and tales Roy that the owner has taken a vacation to Florida.
Essentially, Rudy just wants to keep things going until he can raise enough money to buy a state senate seat through a corrupt political machine. Unscrupulous to the bone, Rudyís greatest goal is to shady politician. To stir up business, Rudy concocts some illegally aired TV ads that do the trick, though Roy has a few tricks of his own to steal back business.
Complications arise when Lukeís long-estranged daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon) reappears. It turns out that she and Luke started a rapprochement prior to his demise. Obviously, this can keep the lot out of Royís hands, but Rudy needs to maintain the charade until he has his money. Of course, many complications ensue, especially when Rudy falls for sjl.
Inevitably, she discovers the ruse, and Rudy hits rock bottom. However, he comes to the rescue when Roy tampers with one of her TV ads. He alters the piece so that it sounds like she says the dealership features a mile of cars. This piece of false advertising gets her in legal hot water, so Rudy tries to save the day through some interesting means.
At its best, Used Cars seemed moderately amusing. At its worst, Used Cars seemed moderately amusing. Although somewhat dated, Cars held up reasonably well. Yes, the fashions looked silly, and the whole style of outrageous comedy on display here appeared strongly anchored in its era. While not as disgusting as todayís gross-out material, films of this style from the late Seventies and early Eighties were actually more extreme in some ways. They paid much less attention to political correctness and offered many segments that could now be viewed as offensive.
When compared to trashy competition like 1980ís The Hollywood Knights and 1984ís Bachelor Party, Cars looks like a gem. Even up against superior material like 1980ís Caddyshack, it holds its own. The latter has more funny segments but seems less consistent, as it seems nearly incoherent at times. I prefer Caddyshack to Cars, but at least the latter comes across as steady.
However, I feel little enthusiasm for anything about Cars. I recalled the scenes that made me laugh so hard in 1980, but they donít generate much of a response now. Cars includes some good scenarios and gags, and the cast and crew execute the whole thing with a reasonable amount of gusto, but in a way, the piece seems like less than the whole of its parts. Oh well - at least it represents a step up from 1979ís 1941, also penned by Zemeckis and Bob Gale.
Used Cars appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though it showed its age at times, on the whole I thought Cars provided a surprisingly attractive picture.
Sharpness usually appeared nicely crisp and distinct. A few wide shots betrayed a smidgen of softness, but those instances occurred very infrequently. An early shot of Warden looked blurry, though it was the ugliest example of that issue. For the most part, the movie remained detailed and accurate. I saw a little shimmer at times, but no concerns related to edge enhancement or jagged edges appeared.
Print flaws cropped up inconsistently. At the start of the film, it seemed fairly gritty and grainy, but the picture quickly cleaned up for the most part. Some light grain recurred throughout parts of the film, and after long stretches without any real concerns, the third act showed more substantial issues. However, these remained pretty light, and Cars stayed reasonably clean for its age.
Overall, colors offered a highlight of the project. Skin tones looked a little reddish at times, but otherwise the hues seemed vivid and lively. The colors appeared clear and vibrant much of the time. A lot of flicks from the era come across as somewhat muddy, but that wasnít a problem here, as the movie usually seemed abnormally distinct and vibrant. Black levels appeared reasonably deep and rich; at times, they looked slightly inky, but those examples were rare, as most dark tones seemed solid. Shadow detail was also generally clean and appropriately opaque without excessive thickness.
All in all, I felt very pleased with the image of Used Cars, but I did want to stress its moderate lack of consistency. Much of the movie looked shockingly good; it went for long stretches during which it earned a clear ďAĒ. However, it also started poorly and presented some fairly grainy and flawed components. I nearly gave the picture a ďB+Ē, but the mildly problematic third act caused me to drop my grade to a ďBĒ. Nonetheless, the movie usually looked quite good, especially considering its age and low budget.
The monaural soundtrack of Used Cars didnít hold up as well, but it seemed acceptable for a film of this vintage. Dialogue generally appeared reasonably natural and distinct. I occasionally heard a little edginess, and some of the lines came across as a bit dull and muddy, but overall, the speech appeared fairly warm and distinct. Effects tended to be thin and a little shrill, without much range or impact. Still, they lacked distortion or any overt flaws. Music was similarly lackluster. Highs were flat and low-end response seemed a bit weak, though some of the score showed mild bass thump at times. Ultimately, the audio of Used Cars was adequate but fairly average for the period.
Though not packed with extras, Used Cars does include some supplements. Most significant is an audio commentary from director Robert Zemeckis, writer Bob Gale, and actor Kurt Russell. All three men were recorded together for this running, fairly screen-specific track. I say ďfairly screen-specificĒ because itís a rollicking affair that often strays from the action. However, it does so in an entertaining and giddy manner.
All three men are veterans of a number of audio commentaries, though Russellís all came with director John Carpenter; I think this is the first for which he sat with anyone else. Russell seems to love to revisit his old work; as with the Carpenter tracks, he laughs through much of the piece, and his attitude is contagious as Zemeckis and Gale also get carried away at times. This keeps the tone light and affable throughout the commentary, but donít worry; itís not just chortling from start to finish. We hear quite a few good stories from the set, and these seem reasonably frank and candid. Overall, the participants appear to have a good time, and this helps make the track winning and amusing as well as informative. At times, the guys get a little too wrapped up in the frivolity; some portions of the film pass with nothing more than giggling. Still, itís a good commentary that definitely merits a listen; heck, I think itís often more interesting than the movie itself.
In addition, a mix of smaller pieces appear. An Outtakes reel lasts four minutes and 20 seconds, and it provides the usual roster of flubs and silliness. The qualityís terrible, but it deserves a look if just because it includes some more excellent nudity from Cheryl Rixon.
A TV Spot provides something unusual. The 30-second ad features Kurt Russell as he teams with the owner of Darner Chrysler-Plymouth - the lot used for the film - to move some cars. Itís odd but entertaining.
Additional ads show up elsewhere. The Radio Spots domain includes two 30-second pieces, four 60-second promos, and one 175-second bit as well as a five-minute radio interview with Kurt Russell. As heard on something called ďMid-Day With Dave AvalosĒ, this clip is mildly interesting but not very compelling.
Within the Vintage Advertising Gallery, we find 13 stills. These include posters, newspaper clippings, and lobby cards. In the grand Columbia-Tristar tradition, the Trailers section doesnít actually include the promo for Used Cars. Instead, we find ads for So I Married An Axe Murderer, Groundhog Day and Multiplicity.
Lastly, we get the usual bland roster of Filmographies. These include entries for Zemeckis, Gale, Russell, Jack Warden and Michael McKean. The DVDís booklet also adds some short but fairly solid Production Notes.
Used Cars doesnít amuse me today like it did when I was 13, but that shouldnít be a surprise. Overall, I thought the movie seemed moderately entertaining but somewhat dated and noisy at times. The DVD offers fairly positive picture with adequate sound and a decent roster of extras highlighted by a rollicking audio commentary. Overall, the movie seems memorable mainly because of the success its director later enjoyed, but for what it is, the flick appears reasonably watchable.