Trust Us. Used Cars: ReBuy It…Or Not?
USED CARS (1980/DVD) Robert Zemeckis’ follow-up to his nostalgic Beatlemaniacal directorial debut,1978’s I Want To Hold Your Hand, was a reactionary experiment—after the squeaky clean former failed to win big box office, the latter was meant to be 180 degrees in the opposite direction, resulting somewhat successfully in the director’s only R-rated film, a crude, lewd, and (just a little) dark-tinged 13-year-old-boy-friendly romp. Too bad the box office still stunk—partly the result of a nearly nonexistent ad campaign and a premature limited screens release launched a week after the opening of one of the biggest and most repeat-viewed comedies of the ‘80s, Airplane!—because Used Cars is a fun, scrappy, and fairly dirty ride through the sleazy American west of the late 1970s. (Don’t feel too bad for Zemeckis, though—he eventually made a few bucks on a little trilogy of squeaky clean films starring a time-traveling Michael J. Fox, not to mention Romancing the Stone, Forrest Gump, and Cast Away, before turning to surprisingly dark and occasionally awesome computer animated family films in the ‘00s with The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol.)
It isn’t hard to understand why 8-year-old Me loved this film so much when MY MOM took us kids to see its initial release. (Other inappropriate films of that era for which I loved MY MOM for taking me to: Brian DePalma’s Dressed To Kill and Blow Out!) For starters, it prominently featured my favorite thing ever at the time, besides Star Wars: Boobs. Add in funny bit parts for “Lenny” AND “Squiggy” from TV’s hit Laverne & Shirley, and the charming swagger of relative newcomer Kurt Russell (then known only for innocuous teen Disney films and his critically praised lead in John Carpenter’s hit ’79 TV miniseries, Elvis), who would soon win a permanent place in my weird lil’ heart for his leads in some of my fave ‘80s movies, all helmed by John Carpenter, duh: Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China, and you’ve officially scored a horny adolescent boy hat trick.
The story—Jack Ward’s struggling used car dealer dies, leaving Kurt Russell’s brash young salesman (and future political hopeful, if he can get his bribe money together in time to be nominated) to save the business from Ward’s evil twin brother (Ward again, hilariously) who owns the very successful used car dealership across the street, plus: boobs—is just a means to an end here, a foundation for steadily stacking hijinks upon hijinks (upon the occasional lojink) into a humdinger of a climax: a (should be) classic high-speed race against time and across the desert featuring hundreds of POS cars piloted by a terrified crew of novice Driver’s Ed students that plays one part Rio Bravo cattle drive and one part Ben-Hur chariot race. The main image that stuck with me as a kid, Russell leading this dusty desert stampede by standing in the back of the lead pickup truck holding on for dear life and eventually Frogger-ing from car to car in a final battle with the now completely homicidal Ward, is just as much fun as it was in 1980.
Is it dated? Hell yeah, it’s dated. Like a jug of milk, it’s dated. But in the same way that Meatballs and Stripes are dated. There’s definitely a time capsule factor here—Russell’s fat and super short ties are classic 1980, and the comedy plays as broad as broad gets—but unlike many long lost fave movies from your childhood, this is exactly the same movie you remember. Well, maybe a little dirtier. (Literally.)
The most recent Used Cars DVD, released in 2002, boasts a pristinely clean soundtrack and print—something you appreciate even more once you’ve delved into the DVD’s special features for the weirdest outtakes reel ever. A darker (as in you can barely see what’s happening), dirtier (as in dirt), or more muffled (as in huh?) bunch of what looks like randomly assembled snuff film clips has yet to be seen. Captial “W” Weird. Also featured is a pricelessly weird looooooow-rent 1980 local TV commercial for the actual Tempe, Arizona used car lot used for the shoot, with Kurt Russell standing next to the real owner and genuinely helping him sell some junky autos. (“Whatta deal!”)
The best thing on this DVD, however—even better than the movie—is a hilarious, cackling 2002 commentary featuring Russell, Zemeckis, and writer/producer Bob Gale. Often sounding like those two guys on NPR’s Car Talk, these old friends have a ball reminiscing about how shocked they were that this movie got made at all. Between a notoriously coked-up crew and an ever-dwindling shoestring budget, Zemeckis sounds amazed that they pulled it off. “I can’t believe we didn’t kill anybody!” he chuckles. “Look in the background—we’re burning tires and diesel fuel all day! That’s why we shot in Mesa, Arizona instead of California. We couldn’t have made it otherwise.”
There are way too many fun exchanges, insights, and anecdotes to recount here, but one moment that stood out was when then unknown actor Alfonso Arau was on screen, decked out like a semiracist ‘70s suburban white dude’s vision of a Mexican used (and likely hot) autos wholesaler. When Russell mentions that Alfonso has gone on to a successful directing career for himself, Zemeckis explodes with laughter, saying “Yeah, Like Water For Chocolate!” Russell then deadpans, “and here he is in our movie, holding his dick.”
Kurt Russell self-deprecatingly brings up the obvious hindsight = 20/20 question: “I can’t help thinking that this movie would’ve been a big hit if you’d cast Bill Murray instead of me,” which, yeeeaaahhh…BINGO! Give that man a cee-gar and Goldie Hawn. (For life.)
Revealing and often just plain weird special features like these make ReBuying It a no-brainer. No BluRay release has been announced as of yet, but if one pops up—likely using the same stellar HD version occasionally making the rounds on your finer HD cable channels—definitely BluRay It. Pick up the disc however you can, though—trust me, the revealing anecdotal goldmine of the commentary alone merits Used Cars a spot on your shelf. (Especially your shelf, look at the crap you have on there.)