Grand Theft Auto (1977)
R1 - America - Buena Vista Home Entertainment - Tricked Out Edition
Review written by and copyright: Jari Kovalainen (8th February 2007).
The Film

For me, there are “car films” and then there are “car films”. This means that I have very little interest in the more recent “cool and slick” Hollywood-movies such as “2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)” (a real turkey) or “The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)” (Johnny Knoxville and Jessica Simpson? Eh, no thank you), but when it comes to older “car chase”-movies like “Smokey and the Bandit (1977)” or “The Cannonball Run (1981)” (or “Death Race 2000 (1975)”, if you want a meaner touch), I´ll say: Bring them on! Before there were successful video-games of the same name, there was a low budget film “Grand Theft Auto (1977)”. It was an unrelated follow up to the similar “Eat My Dust (1976)”, starring young Ron Howard (from “Happy Days (1974-1984)” TV-series). Howard mainly agreed to star in the film, because the producer Roger Corman (executive producer/producer in over 350 movies and director in over 50) promised that he can direct the next film to his “New World Pictures” stable. So in “Grand Theft Auto”, Howard is the director/co-writer/lead actor and Corman the executive producer.

The plot in these movies is usually quite simple; you mainly have to have a few people on the run and then various people chasing them. Add the police that´s after both sides, different cars and plenty of crash-bang-boom, and you have an entertaining movie (at least before Hollywood started making them in the 2000s). In “Grand Theft Auto”, the couple on the run is Sam Freeman (Ron Howard) and his fiancée Paula Powers (Nancy Morgan), who are determined to get married in Las Vegas. The problem is that Paula is the daughter of the wealthy Bigby Powers (Barry Cahill) - now running for governor, and who is equally determined to stop their wedding plans. It´s unacceptable that a penniless “nobody” like Sam Freeman is marrying his daughter. To make things even worse, Paula is “borrowing” (read: stealing) Bigby´s precious Rolls-Royce, when she and Sam head from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Bigby makes some “unofficial” phone calls and soon his helicopter is in the air and agents in the field, ready to stop the fugitive couple. And get the Rolls-Royce back, of course.

Things get a bit more complicated, when Paula´s jealous wannabe ex-boyfriend Collins Hedgeworth (Paul Linke) hears about the situation and offers $25,000 for anyone who can stop the couple and “rescue” Paula from the “kidnapper”. His mother Vivian Hedgeworth (Marion Ross) ends up offering another 25 thousand, and instantly the various parties - with various cars - are after the young lovers, since they hear about the offer from the popular radio-DJ (in real life too) Curly Q. Brown (Don Steele) - now also chasing the “scoop of the year”. Soon the Rolls-Royce gets company: Porsche Carrera, Dodge Charger, Volkswagen Beetle, Lincolns, Chevrolet pick-up, Ford mini-bus, Jeep, Chevyvan, old racing car, police cars - even the ice cream truck are all after Paula and Sam. There are many miles before the lights of Las Vegas are visible.

“Grand Theft Auto” was the directing debut for Ron Howard, now a huge A-list director in Hollywood (e.g. “Cocoon (1985)”, “A Beautiful Mind (2001)” - where he got the “Best Director” Oscar, and “The Da Vinci Code (2006)”). Even when Howard most likely had some needed support from the experienced Roger Corman (who has given opportunities to many known actors and directors), it´s obvious that Howard was a real talent when it comes to directing (he wasn´t bad as an actor either). The film is very compact and entertaining and even when it doesn´t offer any really surprising plot points or very original ideas, it has a clear view - a goal, which Howard delivers for the audience. The film is also rather funny, not necessarily such that you would laugh all the time, but that you feel amused and relaxed, which is half the victory with a film like this. I was also a bit surprised how well the action and stunt scenes were executed and how good they looked visually. Based on the audio commentary the film didn´t have an “ultra low” budget, which probably helped, but the film definitely delivers some good car chases, crashes and explosions - at least in the 1970s scale. It´s also a film where nobody really gets hurt, since even after the wildest crashes, people just crawl under the car unharmed or barely escape for the explosion. Realism? No way. Fun? Damn right.

Howard also adds a few scenes of “drama” with the couple, which is a nice touch and gives some needed breathing time in the middle of the chase scenes (and quite frankly makes a minor difference over the totally mindless films of a similar nature). Paula is actually the driver in the first part of the film and her character is not some bimbo, but rather a woman who can stand up on her own feet. Actress Nancy Morgan has the cute, “girl next door”-look and she is very good in the film. Ron Howard actually plays a more “is this really such a good idea?”-type of guy and is more low key in the film (partly because he needed time for directing), so in that sense he´s not the clear “main star” in the film (I guess the cars and crashes are). Other actors are mainly a combination of Corman-regulars (the film was edited by another future director Joe Dante) or friends and relatives of Howard (his father, brother, wife and old colleagues from “Happy Days” were involved, along with others) and they get the job done (by delivering funny, sometimes a bit “over-the-top”, parts). Of course, in the spirit of these films, all characters are different, ranging from Italian mafiosos (“Vegas Muscle”) and glue sniffing Hispanos to a preacher and senior citizens on the mini-bus. You have also a guy throwing dynamite (!) and of course the police is delivering some laughs for being too eager and “unprofessional” (you have to always laugh for the police in these films). Sure, everything is silly and you can see the “low budget”-lights on the horizon, but “Grand Theft Auto” definitely comes recommended for the fans of laidback car chase-movies and 1970s flavour. Serious film scholars might want to steer away from this one.

Video

A bit surprisingly, the film is presented in 4:3, since the original theatrical aspect ratio must´ve been 1.66:1 or 1.85:1. In any case, the print looks rather good, offering solid colours, deep black levels and relatively clean print. Some nice film grain is visible with a few film artefacts and perhaps the print is slightly on the dark side, but “Buena Vista” has provided a good transfer. I have to assume that the print is “open matte”, even though the print doesn´t always look that “open” to me and some shots looked a bit tight (for the record, I have “Full Pixel” mode on my LCD, so no overscan). Based on this print, Anamorphic 1.66:1 probably would´ve been the ideal way to present the film, but I can live with “open matte” 4:3 also (if that´s really the case - now I´m not fully sure). It´s not the first time that Disney (“Buena Vista” is a distribution company for them) releases a DVD in 4:3 and people are not fully sure why and who made the decision. “Single layer” disc is coded “R1” and runs approx. 84 minutes - NTSC (for some reason the feature film is not time coded). There are 12 chapters.

Audio

The film has one audio track; English Dolby Digital 5.1, with optional English HoH, Spanish and French subtitles. English Closed Captions are also included. Don´t let this fool you too much, since the 2.0 Stereo-track from the earlier release would´ve probably been almost equal. The 5.1-track on this new “Tricked Out Edition” is mainly just spreading the sound to the front channels (a bit like 3.0 Mono, actually), leaving some mild echo on the rears. Don´t expect any big surround-activity, even when the film has car chases, explosions and such. The audio is a bit muffled, but that might have been partly the result of low budget filmmaking. Not a stellar soundtrack, but does the job. Next time, Buena Vista, please also add the original Mono.

Extras

Some bonus trailers are included before the “Main menu” (they can be skipped); “Apocalypto (2006)”, “Roger Corman Collection” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)”. They´re running 6:29 minutes (inc. Anti-piracy promo). None of the extras have subtitles.

Before the film, you can choose the optional film introduction by the executive producer Roger Corman (0:37 seconds). Here Corman tells how ready and calm the 1st time director was, so Howard was a positive surprise for him.

Audio commentary with director/co-writer/actor Ron Howard and executive producer Roger Corman is included (from circa 2001) and these two are giving an interesting and energetic commentary, with plenty of good information. They start off by telling how the project got in the air (Howard was paid for his acting, but he directed the film for free) after the success of “Eat My Dust (1976)” and that it was partly inspired from “It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)”. They talk about the various members of the cast & crew (Howard seems to remember everyone), stunt men and action scenes and the locations (the film was shot on location in approx. 50 days). Howard also talks about the smaller themes in the film (it was also a love story) and points of view of the story. Corman then adds some observations from the producer´s side and they also reveal that the “guy and the dynamite”-scenes were shot mainly by Corman because he wanted to spice up the movie a little more with action (Howard admits that he was first against them, but he doesn´t have big issues against them now). A funny bit is when the bridge is blown up and Corman thought it was a miniature. All the scenes in Las Vegas were also “stolen”, meaning that they didn´t have permission to shoot them. It seems that Corman wasn´t aware of that either. Howard also tells that they made approx. 90 set-ups during one particular shooting day, which is a huge achievement (there are a few continuity problems with the sunlight in the film, but nothing major). The talk slows down near the end when both of the participants start to watch the movie, but all in all a good commentary. The great ending crash gets some genuine laughs for them (as several other scenes, I might add), which is no surprise.

“A Family Affair” -featurette runs 8:41 minutes, including interviews from the co-writer/associate producer/actor Rance Howard (playing private detective Ned Slinker) - the father of Ron, and actor Clint Howard (playing “Ace”) - the brother of Ron and a regular in his films. The featurette is a good companion piece to commentary, since Rance talks more about the script and premises of the film and both men also shed some light on the family, talking e.g. about Ron´s student films. They also took the location scouting seriously and drove many miles the in the middle of LA and Las Vegas. This short featurette is far from in-depth, but it gives some ideas of the warm and creative environment where Ron took his first step as a director. It´s not hard to see why he´s so respected in Hollywood and probably can work with all actors.

Theatrical trailer runs 2:21 minutes. Ron Howard is the presenter in this one, so there are some bits shot exclusively for this trailer.

Keep case comes in slip case (I might add that the cover is quite horrible, they should´ve just stuck to the old one).

Note, that “Interview with Roger Corman and Ron Howard” and “Interview by Leonard Maltin with Roger Corman” -featurettes along with the printed “Reproduction of Original Theatrical Presskit” were not ported from the old release.

Overall

“Grand Theft Auto” is an entertaining and amusing little car chase-film, which is suited for pretty much all ages and is good fun for those “rainy days”. The new “Tricked Out Edition” doesn´t add anything that special (one new featurette and introduction - but also dropping a few extras from the old “SE”), since the new 5.1-track is a quite lame, but it´s a good package nevertheless.

For more info, please visit the homepage of Roger Corman DVDs (Buena Vista Home Entertainment).

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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