By Gary Dowell
Director Ron Howard’s latest project Rush, a dramatization of the tempestuous rivalry between Formula 1 racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda in 1976, is burning up the track at the box office. The movie was something of a passion project for Howard, himself a racing fan and sometimes driver. (His directing debut was Roger Corman’s Grand Theft Auto.) The first major film about auto racing in some time, it’s put the adrenalin junkies and grease monkeys here at Movie Night in the mood for more vehicular mayhem; here’s some of our faves (including some guilty pleasures):
The Great Race (1965)
Hot off the successes of back-to-back Pink Panther movies, Blake Edwards followed-up with this slapstick comedy about competing daredevils The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) and Dr. Fate (Jack Lemmon) who duel it out in a globetrotting auto race circa the early 1900s. This live-action cartoon of a film actually inspired an animated series – Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races – and features both one of cinema’s greatest fencing duels as well as one of the greatest pie fights.
Grand Prix (1966)
Veteran action director John Frankenheimer and an international ensemble cast that includes James Garner, Yves Montand, Toshiro Mifune, and Eva Marie Saint take part in arguably the greatest auto racing movie ever filmed. The pic follows four racers — and the women who love them — through a turbulent Formula One season fraught with peril and controversy, and features hair-raising race footage, cameo appearances by well-known drivers, and impressive use of splitscreen editing. A must-see.
The Love Bug (1968)
The first in the beloved comedy series flicks starring ubiquitous Disney hero Dean Jones as the owner and driver of an apparently sentient Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie, a duo that proves to be unbeatable on the rally circuit. Disney went so far as to hold a casting call of sorts to “audition” the best car for the movie; the pearl white Beetle beat out Toyotas, Volvos, MGs, and others because it was the only one to inspire the crew to pet it, making the already popular model even more iconic.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
One of the great art-house flicks of the ‘70s. Monte Hellman’s existential road trip movie inspired the Cannonball Run (the actual race that is, which inspired the subsequent movie; see below). James Taylor (yes, that James Taylor) and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson star as itinerant drag racers who drift from town to town, until a rivalry with a GTO driver (Warren Oates) has them racing cross-country for pink slips. The metaphors get heavy and the leads border on inert, yet the whole is beautiful and unsettling.
Le Mans (1971)
Steve McQueen’s passion project about the world’s longest-run enduring race, featuring footage filmed during the 1970 competition. McQueen, an experienced racer, turned down the lead role in Grand Prix in order to pursue this project, and did some of his own driving. A box office failure upon release due to its sparse narrative (McQueen’s first line of dialogue occurs 36 minutes in) and American disinterest in foreign auto racing, it has since earned a strong reputation with racing fans.
Death Race 2000 (1975)
Produced by the King of the B-Movies, Roger Corman, this cult classic stars David Carradine as Frankenstein, the reigning champion driver in the state-sponsored Annual Transcontinental Road Race, a three-day rally that scores bonus points for killing pedestrians. Opposite him is Sylvester Stallone in one of his earliest performances as rival racer “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo. Bizarre and in borderline bad taste, even Roger Ebert revoked his original zero-star review to acknowledge its satirical merits.
Fast Company (1979)
Directed by secret gear-head and sometimes racer David Cronenberg (A History of Violence, Crash) and — as an non-horror, non-psychological drama – it’s something of a rarity in his filmography. Former Marlboro Man William Smith stars as a drag racer, former Playmate Claudia Jennings as his love interest, and John Saxon as the manager out to exploit him. A B-grade classic, the movie put Cronenberg in contact with cinematographer Mark Irwin and others who became regular crew members on his films. It was the final film for Jennings, who died in a car accident soon after.
The Cannonball Run (1981)
Inspired by the cross-country race of the same name, this hit ensemble comedy makes up for cheap gags and low artistic merit with some “who’s who” stunt-casting that includes Burt Reynolds and perennial sidekick Dom DeLuise, Roger Moore (parodying his James Bond status), Farrah Fawcett, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin (one of his last roles), Adrienne Barbeau, Jackie Chan, and Peter Fonda.
Days of Thunder (1990)
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, directed by the late Tony Scott, and starring Tom Cruise, this audience favorite is basically Top Gun Goes NASCAR. Cruise is a hot-shot stock car driver who dreams of the big-time, and Nicole Kidman is the hot neurosurgeon who helps him through his crisis of confidence. The race footage is, of course, over the top but aptly so (though supposedly Scott & Co. forgot to film Cruise’s car actually crossing the finish line for the climax).
The Fast & The Furious (2001)
The movie that launched an unlikely franchise that just won’t quit, as well as the careers (such as they are) of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. In what amounts to Point Break with hotrods, Diesel stars as a street racer suspected in a series of high-speed heists, and Walker is the cop sent to bust him. The level of character complexity is ambitious if predictable, and the rubber-burning street race scenes set the tone for the sequels and knock-offs that followed. Ironically, co-stars Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez were unlicensed when cast, and had to take driving lessons.
Talledega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Will Ferrell puts the pedal to the metal as the titular driver, whose need for speed knows no bounds. The gags vary widely in quality, but Ferrell’s knack for improv and Sasha Baron Cohen’s performance as a flamboyant French F1 driver elevate this comedy above mediocrity. It’s as popular with NASCAR drivers as it is with fans, and in an instance of life imitating art Kurt Busch borrowed Bobby’s “ME” paint scheme during his controversial 2011-12 season.