Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions — I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to. This entry spotlights The Gumball Rally.
This week’s entry belongs to the comical sub-genre of cross-country road race films of which The Cannonball Run is the most well-known. The small group also includes a couple of sequels, the John Candy vehicle Speed Zone, Cannonball with David Carradine, and variations on the theme in the form of Rat Race and Scavenger Hunt. Those last two aren’t really about the cars, but our Missed Connections for this week most definitely is… now hop in, and take a ride with me back to 1976 and Warner Bros.’ action-filled romp, The Gumball Rally.
Michael (Michael Sarrazin, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) is a candy company executive zoning out from his latest board meeting when suddenly his eyes light up. He picks up the phone and calls a friend saying only a single word — “Gumball.” It sets in motion a chain of communication as people around the country receive the call, drop what they’re doing — in one case a pair of cops abandon a pursuit — and converge on New York City. They’re in teams of two and include familiar faces like Gary Busey, Disney favorite J. Pat O’Malley, Nicholas Pryor (Risky Business), and the eternally fantastic Raul Julia, and when they first meet the rules of what’s to come are laid out before them.
There actually are no rules to the Gumball Rally, and the first car to cross the finish line at a port in Los Angeles is the winner. There’s also no prize outside of a gumball machine, but these racers are in it for the glory of it all. In addition to each other, the only things working against them are the odds, various state police departments, and one dogged detective in the form of Lt. Roscoe (Norman Burton, Diamonds are Forever) who’s made shutting down this semi-annual race a career goal.
The Gumball Rally predates The Cannonball Run (also directed by a stunt-man turned filmmaker) by five years, and it makes far better use of the same elements. Fast cars, big stunts, casual sexism, and a goofy sense of humor pervade both, but director Charles Bail (Choke Canyon) isn’t forced to cater to the egotistical whims of his cast as the actors here are far from headliners. Instead, they’re in it for the fun and thrills of an ensemble piece focused purely on speeding from east coast to west.
And it is both fun and thrilling as the action unfolds with the practical glory of pre-CG cinema. Car crashes, explosions, and all manner of near-miss shenanigans paint the screen with colorful, exciting set-pieces including a face-off through the Los Angeles river basin, and because the film isn’t concerned with deeper plot threads it’s able to focus strictly on that action. Biker gangs, fireworks shops, and rural traffic cops work like speed bumps along the way, and it all moves at a riotous pace with a bevy of fantastic cars holding center stage. A Shelby Cobra and a Ferrari Daytona jockey for first place alongside speedsters from Corvette, Mercedes, Porsche, and others.
The action is key, but there’s something to be said for a plot devoid of real maliciousness and cruelty. The racers are more about winning than causing others to lose, and while calamities arise they’re never at the hands of competing players. The sense of playful joy is enhanced by Dominic Frontiere‘s (The Stunt Man) jaunty score too resulting in a fun, feel-good action movie. Everyone here is likable to some degree or another with Julia’s Italian Lothario being the standout as he woos women across the country including a young Colleen Camp.
There’s no denying The Gumball Rally is a slight affair — it literally is about nothing more than a goofy race — but not every film needs thematic weight or context. Sometimes you just want to relax with pure pop entertainment, and if you’re looking for something old that may be new to you this smile-inducing flick is guaranteed to do the trick.