Used Cars [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Charlie & Tex (10th August 2019).
The Film

Fresh from his much beloved debut of I Wanna Hold Your Hand, director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale decided that needed something more current, and reflecting the dark era of distrust initiated by Watergate, they took an idea by John Millius and came up with a rip-roaring satire on consumerism and the very nature of capitalism: Used Cars.

Obnoxious Roy L Fukes (Jack Warden) owns a thriving used car business situation by a busy highway. On the other side the road is his brother Luke’s (Warden again) rival dealership, and a new interstate ignites the greed in Roy L as he connives to put his brother out of business by fair means or (mostly) foul. Luke’s loyal employee Rudy (Kurt Russell) is looking to run for the senate, and needs $10,000. When Luke agrees to fund him, fate steps in as Rudy has to keep up appearances that Luke is alive and well, a task made even trickier when a long-lost daughter shows up and takes over the business. With some desperate bids for publicity getting them in hot water, things are about to turn nasty.

Got that? OK, but don’t let that put you off! It’s no door-slamming farce!!

There are many definitions which fall under the blanketing term of “bad taste”, from those which cause eyebrows to be raised at fancy dinner-parties, to the varieties which elicit genuine offence. The last 20 years has seen the term applied to teenage sex comedies (starting with the American Pie sage, in itself more explicitly mining the same genre Porkys initialised nearly 20 years earlier) and the label has been largely stuck on that particular genre, with the series now just view as comedies rather than in bad taste. What the hell are we driving at? Well, it’s that the term eventually becomes redundant when what it’s applied to is no longer viewed as distasteful, and people wonder why it was labelled as much in the first place. Used Cars was made at a time when America was reeling from the dubious presidency of Nixon, and when most of the country hated Carter. It was giving Americana a good kicking when it was down, and such an assault - along with swearing and some nudity - saw it labelled “bad taste”. It is fortunate that there is so much to like in the movie that it manages to break free of such a lazy description.

The movie essentially is a cinematic version of Mad Magazine’s Spy Vs Spy, where two identical entities (one light, the other dark) engage in the a series of escalating tactics to outdo each other, culminating in something utterly insane which brings things to a head. Those of a younger generation might want to think “Itchy & Scratchy”. Said culmination is the “stampede” section, where a procession of cars big enough to make Hal Needham envious has to tear across the desert in a race against time.

There are so many classic scenes woven into the fabric of the screenplay, from the hacking of a presidential broadcast so as to play a really bad-taste commercial, to the various degrees of finesse demonstrated when selling (“…just sit in the motherf***in’ car!!”) and the impromptu Viking funeral for one of the ill-fated characters. In fact, it’s refreshing to find a comedy where the principle case is populated by actors rather than comedy stars, playing the material how it needs to be played but without the frequent sense of self-satisfaction comedic actors give off when they know they are landing a laugh. With that, let’s take a look at the stellar cast…




Used Cars was blessed with the presence of Kurt Russell, but said blessing wasn’t strictly one-way traffic. At this point in his career, he was still looking to shake off the chains of Disney, on a mission to establishing himself as an adult actor, and making his Dexter Reily movies a thing of the past, a job just started with playing Elvis in John Carpenter’s TV movie bio-pic. As anyone who has seen Used Cars will tell you, Russell puts in a superb performance as Rudy Russo, managing to take an utter scumbag and make him eminently likeable, and as anyone who has been done-over at a used-car lot will tell you, that takes some doing. Odd-ball mainstay Gerritt Graham puts in excellent work as Jeff, the superstitious paranoiac with whose primal instinct for survival conflicts with Rudy’s reckless spirit. His quirks play into the script in ways which might have seemed really irritating when assigned to another actor, but here he brings it to life. Veteran actor Jack Warden finally got the chance to swear onscreen, and clearly revels in the opportunity. That he can play both the thoroughly likeable Luke Fuchs and the total b*stard Roy L is testament to his abilities, and it was a nice way to break him into a new phase of his career. It’s not hard to imagine that the producers of Problem Child had Warden firmly in mind when they were throwing names around for Big Ben Healy.

She comes into the movie late, but Deborah Harmon is a unusual choice for a female lead, making you realise how much the movie was missing a feminine touch. As Luke’s daughter, her deep, almost rasping voice and slightly masculine qualities make her completely credible as the offspring of a grease-monkey, not to mention a former Consumer Protection agent. She is sadly of “look” which really wouldn’t get cast as a lead these days, being neither skinny Minnie nor “funny fat”, and her later role in Bachelor Party saw her fall into exactly the bitchy, man-hating role casting agents would have lazily dumped her in. Best of all is Frank McRae’s surly, lazy, violent mechanic Jim, a man making up with presence for what he lacks in any kind of social understanding. McRae easily waltzes off with an entire scene via a single line, or - when dangerously asleep with a lit blowtorch in his hand - no dialogue at all. It’s entirely possible that he was the inspiration for Family Guy’s Ollie Williams, but that‘s strictly conjecture. He gets two of the biggest laughs in the movie, with the other one his response to being admonished for turning a fire-hose on a group of nuns protesting the dealership: “And I knocked the motherf*ckers on their ass, too”. One of the most mind-scrambling footnotes about the movie is that it was remade for TV 4 years later, serving as the pilot to the an unsold series. That’s pretty odd, but what makes it so utterly odd is that both Harmon and McRae returned to play their characters! Yep, there was more Jim to be found, but the constraints of TV rendered him almost inert. What a missed opportunity!!

When it comes to filmed entertainment, dogs are often used as a means to ensnare the lowest common denominator. OK, Old Yeller is one of the biggest bucker of the trend, but when TV networks used to have a dog on standby for the second season of a failing TV show, it illustrated just how cynical a device they are. As anyone familiar with Used Cars will testify, plucky Beagle Toby is the star of the show and probably generates more laughs than any singular character. Far more than merely cute, this is a hyper-intelligent animal capable of picking out exact-sized tools when casually asked, spends his time watching TV when nobody else is looking and - in the funniest scene in the movie - colludes with his fellow sellers into scamming customers. We won’t say how, but it’s utterly hilarious. Clearly others have loved Toby, too, as some of his stuff has been directly ripped off directly in a much more recent film, right down to getting the wrong tool for the job before replacing it with the right one. Still, Toby is so advanced he must also have amphibian DNA mixed in with his canine variety, as he manages to change sex at various points during the movie.




Something really cool is the appearance of Wild Bunch actor Alfonso Arau as Manuel, putting in a typically magnetic performance as a dubious trader in cars and potential saver-of-the-day. He conducts his business out of a downed plane, a theme used in Zemeckis’ next film Romancing The Stone, where its protagonists make a rather fragrant campfire in (and from the contents of) a similarly grounded aircraft. Oh, and Arau was also in the later movie, too! Also along for the ride, and connecting both future and past Zemeckis movies are I Wanna’ Hold Your Hand stars (and future McFly siblings) Marc McClure and Wendie Jo Sperber as student drivers. Oh, and keep a look out for a very brief (but really funny) cameo by the legendary Dick Miller, who gets to be in bed with The Horror Show’s Rita Taggart! Al ”Grandpa Munster” Lewis is on hand as a heavy-handed judge, brought into to preside over the climactic events of the movie, and you have to wonder if he did the movie for a box of Cubans…

The plan to hack Carter’s presidential broadcast and play a commercial over it is both hilarious and ingenious. Even though it spent a number of years being ridiculed for the notion that the American airwaves could be hacked by a tiny little outfit, but they were eventually vindicated by the infamous “Max Headroom” hack. Yes, in 1987, Chicago’s WGN had the broadcast of a very good Doctor Who episode (The Horror of Fang Rock) interrupted when pirates hijacked the airwaves, with someone wearing a Max Headroom mask imitating the infamous Matt Frewer character and spouting a mixture of anti-establishment rants and utter gibberish. The commercial itself is gut-bustingly funny, as Graham destroys his rivals’ cars in increasingly explosive ways, all with a dose of perfectly-deployed profanity.

If you have to mention any negatives about the movie, then it would have to include the huge, honking great plot-hole which threatens to capsize the whole thing. Spoilers ahead! When Roy L and his cronies tamper with our heroes’ commercial, any decent lawyer would either have the case thrown out or win the verdict through it being blatantly obvious that a 3rd party had tampered with it, the accused having nothing to gain from such actions. This segues into the other main problem with Used Cars, that of having to prove the “mile of cars” consuming the last 30 minutes of screen-time, using a shaky premise to bring about a predictable (and ironically) pedestrian climax to a movie bubbling with vitality. During aforementioned climax, they overuse one singular piece of music, one composed to be of an “heroic” nature. Whenever a shot in the arm is needed for the “stampede” sequence, in it goes. When one of the good guys does something mildly daring during it, out it comes. By the last time it’s used, you’ll find yourself saying “God, not again…”.

The other problem is that the movie could have been, as they say “shut down” quiet early on, with Roy L’s reckless, reactionary actions landing him in court long before any false advertising claim. It was clearly one of his associates whom induced Luke’s fatal heart attack, not to mention trying to kill Jeff by running him down after losing his temper. To go one better than the (curiously unreported) attempted vehicular homicide is when he pulls a gun and starts trying to shoot our heroes, and all in front of about 200 witnesses. OK, it’s said that Roy L has money and influence, but not even that could be brushed off. If this all sounds like a wall of negativity, it’s not - any such stuff is outweighed by the brilliance of the rest, and you just go with the bumps.


Video

There are a few different editions of Used Cars out there in the world, but this here Eureka 1.85:1, 1080p release tops them all. The look is more in keeping with the Twilight Time transfer, with lots of lovely grain giving higher levels of detail to the image, but the encoding is better, but given who it’s from, you would expect nothing else, and there’s very nice, well-resolved grain throughout the entire film. OK, we have minor debris and speckling at times, but this just makes you appreciate the celluloid nature of it even more. Hell, the resolution so good that we’ve never really noticed the cameraman reflected, large as life in a wing-mirror at the beginning! How about that you can easily make out that the figure hung by the judge on his desk is now obviously at of a Kenner Han Solo! There is a single drop in quality during the run of the movie, being early on featuring a shot of Jack Warden. It’s brief, and probably just reproducing the best materials available. Over all, this is probably the best-looking release of Used Cars to be found, and this presentation was a blast to watch.

Audio

We get a choice of the original mono mix as via LPCM 2.0 and the upgraded DTS HD-MA 5.1 mix. Both are excellent options, with the mono option conveying the movie exactly as was intended, with spot-on dialogue and rich music. The 5.1 mix offers the same fullness, but with a little more spread. The “stampede” climax throws sound into the rear speakers, and noises from the highway surround are panned out to them also, creating a nice sonic picture. Optional English subtitles are also available.

Extras

Audio Commentary With Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale and Kurt Russell: The three main forces behind the movie have a riot as they relive the first big step on their roads to the top of business. If you have ever heard other Russell commentaries, you’ll know that he is there to have a good time, and probably should call a taxi on his way back home. It’s rather self-indulgent, almost to the point of alienating causal listeners, but there is a ton of information to be found here, only some of which overlaps into the other extras. It was recorded nearly 20 years ago (back in 2000) but it’s still a rather fun listen.

Isolated Score Track: This DTS-MA 2.0 track gives you Patrick William’s full music score, a very nice addition which is falling by the wayside over the last decade. Just try not to play the “heroic” piece too many times!

Isolated Unused Score Track: Yessir, the ditched efforts of Ernest Gold are to be found here, again in DTS-MA 2.0. A little of his work found its way into the final film, but when you listen to the body of it, the feel just isn’t right. It gives off the wrong vibe to the movie, and for a comedy, it’s crucial. Unlike Hitchcock’s very unwise decision to throw out Lalo Schiffrin’s wonderfully creepy score to Frenzy, this was the right choice. Oh, neither of these were on the recent Shout! Factory edition!

Would You Buy a Used Car from These Men? (27:11) Here we have a fun half-an-hour sit-down with personable writer Bob Gale, where he discusses the genus of the script, the dubious used-car-dealer politics of movie studios, hilarious anecdotes from salesmen, casting, focusing the power of Robert Zemeckis and a number of other entertaining aspects.

Kurt Russell Darner Chrysler Commercial (0:32): As a sweetener for the owner of the dealership where the movie was filmed (and the inconveniences it caused…) it was decided to have Russell film a commercial for the company, with him in character plugging the lot. This is pretty shoddy stuff, and it all seems very uncomfortable, as the movie was a long way from coming out, and when it did, the poor release it got probably meant that this advert did nothing for the dealership it was supposed to be helping.

Kurt Russell Radio Interview (5:03): Nice to have, but nothing you wouldn’t have expected.

Gag Reel and Outtakes (4:29): Given how uniform such things are on the Marvel releases, it’s a refreshing change to see cock-ups occurring without one of them “hilariously” breaking into dance. There’s nothing gut-busting, but it just brings the movie much closer to you when the dirty laundry is aired in public. From a movie that long ago, and one which wasn’t particularly successful, it always nice to find such gems you thought might not exist at all.

Radio Spots (7:57): They are: “Epic”, “Hey You”, “Phone Message”, “Rebate”, “Roy Rudy Barbara“, “Rudy” and “Yankee Stadium”. All are fun to listen to, and a nice way of remembering an era of marketing which is long gone. All you get today are essentially re-treads of the trailers, and this demonstrates the efforts put in by the distributors, and how the airwaves were so important to the business back then.

Still Galleries: Comprising of “Action and Stunts“, “Unused Ad Concepts“, “Behind the Scenes” & “Posters and Lobby Cards”, there is some rather juicy stuff here. Best is in the unused ad concepts, where not only will you find at least one they should have employed (the one with the three main characters and their motivations) but we get a look at the Spielberg mentality where his hand-written notes on a rejected poster show him to be rather a prude.

Theatrical Trailer (1:50): There are at least 4 VERY different trailers for Used Cars, from the teaser, to one which emphasises the stampede sequence and tries to pass it off as a Hal Needham movie, right down to the really irritating one where a “used car salesman” walks around his lot trying to sell the film. The one found here puts the focus on the more coarse elements, playing the more explosive uses of swearing, but bleeping out the bad language. That this many very different trailers exist demonstrates that Columbia didn’t know how to market it, and that some of them might have been run up rather quickly when they knew it was in trouble. From a budget of $8m, it only clawed in just over $11.5m at the American box office.

Overall

We’ve been rather cautious in not blowing all of the laughs in Used Cars, a movie which deserved a lot better release than it got - what studio puts out a comedy at exactly the same time that Airplane is released?? Now almost 40 years old, and a movie which was largely relegated to occasional late-night TV here in the UK, it’s exactly the right time for a new audience to discover it. We live in a world where things are either so politically correct that all life is drained from comedy, or it overcompensates are goes as base as it can get. Between those is Used Cars, a comedy which walks the taste line as though it were a tightrope, and isn’t afraid to be crude every now and again, Performances are superb, and it’s as fun a way of spending 2 hours as you are likely to find. You’ll get great mileage out of this superb runner from Eureka, along with excellent optional extras.

What more do you want? Buy it!!

 


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