Movie review: ‘The Gumball Rally’

The Gumball Rally” is one of my all-time favorites. It has cars, it has humor and most of all – it has cars. Fast cars. Really fast cars. It is a film inspired by an underground cross-country auto race (no, not the Burt Reynolds film “The Cannonball Run” – click here for my review — and its sequel, although his movies’ names more reflect the real thing), “The Gumball Rally” is a minor classic with nice spots by a young Raul Julia and Colleen Camp and a bit of  dabbling in psychotic behavior from Gary Busey. The race spans our continent and is filled with a variety of eccentric characters. With the 40th anniversary of the release of the film passed on July 28, 2016, the year of 1976 feels a long, long time ago. But the film stands up and remains one of my favorites of all time.

‘The Gumball Rally’
(1976; 105 minutes; rated PG; directed by Chuck Bail and starring Michael Sarrazin, Tim McIntire and Raul Julia)

 ‘WHAT’S-A BEHIND ME IS NOT IMPORTANT’

(NOTE: I first expanded this review on Nov. 7, 2014, and then again on Aug. 9, 2016, with some reorganization, additional opinion – none changed – and the updating of some links. I did a little more tinkering and updating on Aug. 19, 2017.)

With the speed limit at the “double nickel” (55 mph) in the 1970s, many drivers found a mission imperative in breaking the law (not really unlike John Dillinger and bank robbery statutes in the early 1930s, but without the murder and featuring only casual mayhem). It was a full-bore, full-throttle, no-holds barred affair from New York City and Darien, Conn., to Redondo Beach, Calif., in the fastest supercars of the day and hot classics.

(CLICK HERE FOR ALL MY MOVIE REVIEWS)

In real life, the “unofficial” cross-country race was dubbed the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash (click the link to follow to Wiki for a full description) and brought speeding scofflaws to Dillinger’s status and spawned the radar detector industry. Naturally highway antics became a vehicle for Hollywood as it needed little bidding to follow the trend.

While Burt Reynolds’ two like-named films are more easily remembered with everyone-in-Hollywood supporting casts and David Carradine’s horrid “Cannonball” being nothing more than a one-car pile-up also from 1976, “The Gumball Rally” is a much superior film to both at all levels.

No kidding.

Michael Sarrazin plays “Michael Bannon” and Tim McIntire plays “Steve ‘Smitty’ Smith” and they are competitors not just in the sea-to-sea race but from their long friendship. As the winner of the previous year’s race, Sarrazin gets to say when the next will be held and so he calls McIntire and says the magic word: “Gumball.”

The race is on!

You have teams built for speed (AC Cobra, Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 and Ferrari Daytona); for efficiency (a van with a huge gas tank so it won’t have to stop); a lone motorcycle – a Kawasaki KH400; and two cops from California who have magnetic signs and flashing lights to impersonate being a patrol unit along the way. Each of the teams (two people to a vehicle, except for the motorcycle) must navigate from New York City to Long Beach, Calif., and the shortest time wins. Sarrazin and his partner are the record holders in this fantasy race and McIntire is trying to catch up – so the wealthy businessman hires Ferrari driver “Franco Bertollini,” played by Raul Julia.

Of course along the way everyone falls victim to something – from cops to girls to breakdowns to even one team accidentally setting their own van on fire and then plunging it into a fireworks factory. McIntire and Julia even outrun a helicopter in their Ferrari Daytona.

Toss in the supporting cast (with Gary Busey at the lead of the secondary force and Julia and Colleen Camp as ships passing very closely in the night) and it works and works well without the slapstick of Burt’s “Cannonball” films. One nice spot follows along as a Jaguar E-Type won’t start and a team member finally blames the humidity (“England is humid,” another team member laments). It also has the Porsche team with two stereotyped women as the Porsche 911 team (insert 1970s CB slang for them here); and a couple of old boys who are along for the basic thrill of the chase in their two seat, drop-top Mercedes-Benz 300SL. Add a long-suffering cop who gets flashed in New York after the “Gumballers” vandalize his car and you pretty much can guess the rest.

Here’s a look at some of the primary cast:

  • A Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Sarrazin does a competent, workmanlike job here but the film would have been much better had been able to elevate his game here. As the main character, he didn’t inject the energy necessary to make this one a big winner. Sarrazin was also in “Sometimes a Great Notion” and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.” He died in 2011 of cancer at the age of 70, with 70 credits over six decades.
  • McIntire is much more blustering and egotistical, but he his loyal to his friend Sarrazin despite the competition. He does a good job here in a better effort than Sarrazin and following up “The Gumball Rally” with “American Hot Wax” two years later in 1978 with Fran Drescher and Jay Leno as well as having been in the simply awful “The Choirboys” (click here for my review). McIntire left us at the early age of 41 in 1986 from a heart attack.
  • On the outside of the racers is the exceptionally strange “Lapchik” (Harvey Jason, who went on to guest shots on TV’s “The Love Boat” – click here for my review of that wonderfully kitschy series) and “Charlie’s Angels”). Jason is very good here and might have needed some counseling after getting so far into character. Sadly, the Hollywood bible, com, misspells his character’s name in its online entry for the film (it has since been corrected).
  • Golden Globe winner (not for this one) Julia is smooth and especially passionate – and not just about cars. He does a great job here with his character and eases through it with élan and the foreign panache so necessary in the character. He won his Globe for John Frankenheimer’s “The Burning Season” and was nominated for three others (I liked him best after “The Gumball Rally” in “Tempest”). Julia was also in “The Addams Family” and its sequel as well as “Moon Over Parador.” Julia passed in 1994 at the age of 54 of complications from a stroke.
  • A young(er) Busey has a ton of fun with this film as “Gibson” on the Camaro team. He’s always wired to the gills and offers twice the energy Sarrazin ever offers. Although he’s good, Busey wouldn’t have done well as a headliner here. As it is, his small(ish) role is fun, fun to watch and just right. Busey would go on to do “The Buddy Holly Story” (and get an Oscar nomination for that awful film) and was also in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and after “The Gumball Rally” would live a life better suited to the tabloids than the big screen – although in his work he’s prolific (168 credits over six decades), diverse in his choice of roles and always watchable on the big screen (and even the little screen – check him out in a cameo on TV’s once-meghit “Two and a Half Men”).
  • Norman Burton plays longsuffering “Lt. Roscoe” and he holds a grudge against McIntire and does an ill-fated and unsuccessful cross-country chase of his own. Burton has the talent to convey the failed earnestness of “Roscoe” and remained solid from his first scene to his last. Burton was also one of the 007 franchise’s “Felix Leiter” characters (he was “James Bond’s” CIA contact) in one of my favorite 007 flicks: “Diamonds are Forever” (click here for my review). Ironically as far as “The Gumball Rally” goes, Burton died at 79 in 2003 in a vehicle crash.

Unfortunately lost in the flotsam of the film are a couple of excellent actors: Nicholas Pryor as Sarrazin’s partner “Samuel Graves” and Steven Keats as “Kandinsky,” who is one of the cops in their Dodge Polara squad car with the ever-changing law enforcement decals. Like others in the film, neither one is offered enough screen time to give a memorable performance.

Pryor, who has 161 credits in a prolific TV and film career over seven decades, was also in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” while Keats was in two other films I enjoyed immensely: “Death Wish” with Charles Bronson (click here for my review) and the terrorist thriller “Black Sunday,” in which he’s a doomed commando trying to keep the Super Bowl from being attacked (click here for my review). According to IMDb.com, Keats died of an “apparent suicide” in 1994 at the age of 49.

Julia has the signature line of the film spoken to his teammate McIntire: “And now my friend, the first-a rule of Italian driving. What’s-a behind me is not important.”

However, another memorable line is by the elderly gentlemen in the Mercedes. As Lapchik speeds past on his motorcycle while they enjoy the luxury of the open Mercedes, one gentleman says, “Would you say that man Lapchik has a certain joie de vivre?” The other replies, “I’d say he’s possessed of a severe case of masochism.” The gentlemen would later share a drink while motoring along – a big no-no in today’s Hollywood (except for villains).

Like in most Hollywood offerings (good films as well as bad) most of the loose ends are tied up when the credits roll. As the racers were about to immediately do another run, the ending left open the possibility of a sequel. It didn’t happen … and that’s disappointing except that the sequel couldn’t possibly have been as good as the original. After all, the sequel most likely would have been as bad as “Caddyshack II” (click here for my review).

Finally, there’s actually a question about the spelling of the name of the film. In the credits and on the movie poster – you can see it in this review – the spelling is “Gumball.” However, in the early pre-race meeting at a restaurant, a logo for the group shows it as “Gum Ball.” Also, the machine dispensing the balls in the opening credits has “Gumball.” I’d say the group’s logo is most accurate, but actually, I’ll back what IMDb.com does: What’s in the credits. For example, the movie “MASH” doesn’t have asterisks in its “official” title. Check the opening credits. They were added for the film’s poster and were placed from the beginning in the title for the TV series.

Being as it was a quirky little film, “The Gumball Rally” didn’t place in the top 10 at the U.S. box office in 1976. The No. 1 film was “Rocky” with $117.2 million. I didn’t spend a lot of time, so I wasn’t able to locate just how much it did make. In any case, here are the films from that year I’ve reviewed for this blog:

Addition cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Part of the racing sequences was filmed in the water run-off slipways of Los Angeles and this was two years before the “Grease” crowd had their showdown race in the same place.
  • The late, great Casey Kasem has an uncredited voice appearance.
  • Linda Vaughn, who gained fame in the 1970s as a race car pinup girl (primarily drag racing), has a bit part as “Plan Alpha” and uses her impressive bust in a T-shirt to distract one of the racers. She was in another racing movie – Burt Reynolds’ horrid NASCAR stinker “Stroker Ace.”
  • IMDb.com reports that the actors did their own driving in most scenes.
  • It’s easy to see how IMDb.com could misspell a key character’s name: the main cast, with the exception of Julia as “Franco,” is not listed with their character’s name. In the closing credits you see the actor’s name and photo and only the second-tier supporting cast gets both name and character name. The name “Lapchik” can be seen spelled out on the side of his helmet when he pulls in for gas on a cold evening and cozies up to the muffler for warmth. The misspelling has since been corrected (I sent in an email).

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016, 2017.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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