Quick – how many Cannonball Run movies were there? If you said two, think again. Most people remember the 1981 original, which starred Burt Reynolds, Farrah Fawcett, and Dom DeLuise. It was a huge hit that spawned a sequel, 1984’s much-maligned Cannonball Run II. (“This is the movie equivalent to phoning it in,” said Roger Ebert in his half-star review.) A lot of people remember that one, too, in part because it reached new levels of cash-an-easy-paycheck atrociousness, more or less killing the public’s interest in the franchise. And maybe that’s why very few people recall that there was a third Cannonball Run movie. On April 21, 1989, Orion Pictures released Speed Zone, which was alternately known as Cannonball Fever. If it’s possible to make a movie on this subject that’s even worse than Cannonball Run II –– and Ebert thought it was, awarding this one a rare zero stars — Speed Zone is it.
Initially conceived as The Cannonball Run III, Speed Zone required a title change when Reynolds and original director Hal Needham opted not to return for another round. The premise is that surly Washington, D.C. police chief Spiro T. Edsel (Peter Boyle) wants to stop the scheduled auto race from his city to California. He arrests all the competitors prior to the start of the event, leaving the sponsors scrambling to find new drivers. The only options are a ragtag assortment of goofballs. There’s a timid parking lot attendant (John Candy), riding with the hot girlfriend (Donna Dixon) of his bully (Eugene Levy). There’s a hitman (Joe Flaherty) and the guy he’s been sent to kill (Matt Frewer). There are two MIT graduates (Sheri Belafonte and Flash Gordon‘s Melody Anderson) who have developed high-tech gizmos to give racers a competitive edge. And there are the millionaire cheaters (the Smothers Brothers) who managed to escape the mass arrest. Tim Matheson and Mimi Kuzyk play TV reporters also competing in the race, under the guise of covering it for their station.
Speed Zone also boasts a number of celebrity cameos, including Brooke Shields (who won a Worst Supporting Actress Razzie Award for her role as herself), Alyssa Milano, John Schneider, veteran character actor Lee Van Cleef, Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, and NASCAR legend Richard Petty. Most notably, Jamie Farr cameos as the Sheik, the character he also played in the two previous Cannonball Run installments, making him the only actor to appear in all three.
There’s not much plot in Speed Zone. It’s essentially a series of barely-connected scenes in which the characters either engage in bizarre bantering in their cars or attempt to outsmart each other through a variety of dirty tricks. The level of humor in the movie is often lowbrow. In one of the lamest jokes, a Frenchman on an airplane offers Tom Smothers his peanuts, but it sounds as though he’s saying “penis,” leading to some homophobic confusion. Other times, the comedy is just plain goofy, with no real point. Boxer Michael Spinks, for instance, emerges from a store holding a box of wine under each arm. Upon seeing his car accidentally demolished by two of the Cannonball participants, he squeezes the boxes so hard that they spray.
Other jokes aren’t really even jokes at all. Speed Zone thinks it’s funny to have cars abruptly swerve, change direction, drive in reverse, or crash into something. When it gets bored with that, it stages an elaborate sequence in which a jet plane carrying the Smothers Brothers leaves the runway and begins driving on the road. Really, the only time the movie even hints at approaching actual comedy is in the scenes between Candy and Levy, who bring a well-honed SCTV touch to their interactions, and between Candy and Dixon, who is delightfully ditzy as an aspiring actress. Everything else is dead weight.
Speed Zone was written by Michael Short, the older brother of comedian Martin Short and a former SCTV scribe. It was directed by Jim Drake, a sitcom director (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Gimme a Break!), whose only previous feature film experience was helming 1987’s Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol. He never made another theatrically-released movie. (Drake later did eight episodes of the Disney Channel show The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, among other TV gigs.) What they deliver is a choppy, inconsistent film that often feels assembled from the deleted scenes of other movies. Speed Zone lurches awkwardly from one unfunny moment to the next, culminating with an end credit sequence in which all the cast members drive bumper cars. By that point, we’re quite ready to bail.
Speed Zone opened opposite Pet Sematary, the Dolph Lundgren vehicle Red Scorpion, and the Jeff Bridges/Drew Barrymore drama See You in the Morning. It debuted in 10th place, earning $1.4 million on 1,195 screens. (It was handily beaten by the 19th weekend of Rain Man.) Second weekend box office dropped by 62%. There was no third weekend. Speed Zone earned a grand total of just over $3 million during its brief theatrical run. To say reviews were unkind would be an understatement. The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson called it “scarily unfunny,” adding that “it does something that I thought was virtually impossible — it makes us nostalgic for the previous two.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Speed Zone has long been out of print, which is another likely reason why so few remember its existence. The picture was released on VHS back in the day, but has never been available on DVD or Blu-Ray, making it difficult to find. There is, however, a YouTube upload that’s of semi-decent quality.
One suspects that those involved are quite happy Speed Zone has faded from the public’s memory. Surely, none of its makers or stars would consider it among their finest achievements. That said, it’s nonetheless a true late-’80s curio — a throwback to a time when movies still occasionally assembled name actors, paid them for a couple days of work, and tossed the half-assed results onto cinema screens across the country.
As for Burt Reynolds, passing on Speed Zone proved to be one of the few smart career choices he made in the era. If only Candy, Levy, and everyone else had followed suit.