Used Cars’ creative energy sparks to life thanks to the imaginations of director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale (the juvenile schemes of its heroes displaying a fun powerplay between the bully and the bullied).
Before Robert Zemeckis became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after blockbuster directors, he made knockabout comedies focused on the “little guy” sticking it to the “man”. Be that the counter-culture kids of I Wanna Hold Your Hand, the nomadic adventurism of Jack Colton in Romancing the Stone, or Kurt Russell’s down-on-his-luck car salesman in Used Cars.
Each film possesses a distinct charm as well as a wonderful sense of energy and imagination (certainly helped by his collaboration with writer-producer Bob Gale). And while he managed an early-career box office bomb with the indulgent farce 1941 (as its co-writer), importantly one powerful individual in the American film industry remained in his corner, through good times and bad. That man was Steven Spielberg, a co-conspirator in 1941 debacle, who saw a little of his own creative spark in the young Zemeckis.
The filmmaker who at that time was Hollywood’s golden boy having made Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind was so adamant that his protégé had the talent to make it big, he fended off sceptical studio execs to ensure Zemeckis got his break. That of course led to making Michael J. Fox a worldwide superstar in Back to the Future and setting his career on course to producing future hits like Cast Away and What Lies Beneath, pioneering technique and special effects in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her and The Polar Express, and winning an Oscar for the endearing Forrest Gump.
Used Cars, his second as writer-director, was originally a concept Spielberg wanted to take forward himself. But Zemeckis and Gale were given the opportunity to develop it with Spielberg as Executive Producer. It was quickly shot in 1979 across 28 days but the production in Arizona ended up costing Columbia $8 million (which led to Zemeckis and Gale’s reputation for spending lavishly, concerning studio accountants).
Most of the budget was eaten up by crashing cars. The film’s many action set pieces include a 200-plus trail of vehicles careering through the desert and a sequence involving a 1957 Chevrolet Two-Ten coupe being demolished on a joy ride along the Mesa roads at night. Zemeckis and writing partner Gale also blew up a Mercedes SL with dynamite and crashed a fuel-doused 1959 Edsel into an electrical transformer causing it to burst into flames.
The creative duo’s penchant for smashed wind shields, crunching metal and automotive chaos may have some recalling the out of control mess that became 1941 (which was released the same year they were making Used Cars) but this effort manages to balance madcap sensibilities with vibrant characters and well-tuned storytelling. The film also boasts some wonderful performances courtesy of a young Kurt Russell and the brilliant Jack Warden in a dual role as twin brothers: the perennially grumpy bully Roy L. Fuchs and the softly spoken Luke Fuchs.
It’s through the brothers that Used Cars gets its dramatic backdrop. Situated across the road from each other, the Fuchs’ separate car dealerships are at war for custom. Roy has the sparkling new building, the town’s councillors in his pocket, a dedicated lawyer pulling the strings, and a demolition derby driver adding muscle to his entourage. Conversely, Luke has a dicky ticker, a car lot suffering from a lack of investment, and a bunch of jalopies he’s resigned to making a loss on.
But one thing Luke has that Roy doesn’t is Rudy Russo (Russell), a cocksure salesman whose ambition, quite amusingly, is to become a corrupt politician. When Luke dies of a heart attack, Rudy must fend off the dead man’s twin brother from getting his hands on the dealership while trying to make a quick buck in order to buy his way to a state Senate nomination.
Russell finds a likable arrogance. His earnest pursuit to nullify the advances of his bullying rival may be steeped in self-preservation but he has a heart that clearly values the friendship he once had with his now dead boss. While some of the film’s funniest moments involve Rudy trying to hide from Luke’s daughter the fact her dad has passed away, the fleeting discomfort of such dark comedy is alleviated by the fact the salesman has, at least partly, the deceased’s best wishes at heart.
That semblance of moral value is not evident in Roy L. Fuchs. It’s a character Jack Warden clearly has fun with. The actor, whose glittering career includes stand out performances in 12 Angry Men, The Verdict and his Academy Award nominated turns in Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait, shows his class and versatility as the mild-mannered Luke and ill-tempered Roy.
What may have become caricature with another actor, Warden, all fire and brimstone, huffs and puffs as the antagonistic car dealership owner, always conspiring to step on his rivals with total disregard for consequence. When his prized Mercedes SL explodes, you can’t help but smile from ear to ear. It takes a similarly conceited individual to tackle him, making Rudy’s self-interest one we can get behind.
Centred around its male characters (including Gerrit Graham’s superstitious Jeff, and a pair of tech whizzes, one of whom is This Is Spinal Tap’s Michael McKean, who help Rudy break into high profile TV broadcasts to advertise the car lot), Used Cars’ female counterparts get short thrift. The only woman of note is Deborah Harmon’s Barbara Fuchs, the estranged daughter of Luke, who comes back on the scene after ten years part.
It’s a sign of its age but suffice to say, after falling for Rudy’s charms, and into his bed, with the ease of enticing a dog to heel with the promise of a biscuit, she becomes a one-dimensional stereotype who ultimately must rely on her newfound male friend to bail her out of financial and legal trouble. Zemeckis and Gale may have been able to gloss over such chauvinistic thinking had they not made every other female character either a sex object or a bad driver.
Not that I’m denying the scene in which Gerrit Graham’s Jeff tries to sell cars during a pirate TV broadcast with a female co-host isn’t one of the film’s funniest moments. Her dress gets caught in the bonnet of a car and, when the bonnet accidentally flips open, her attire is ripped off turning a commercial into a softcore blue movie. But it’s an indication of where Used Cars gets some of its kicks from.
A precursor to Robert Zemeckis smashing box office records, this 1980 comedy may have dated gender representation but possesses an appealing charm that ensures it still has plenty to offer today. Its creative energy sparks to life thanks to the imaginations of its director and his co-writer Bob Gale (the juvenile schemes of its heroes displaying a fun powerplay between the bully and the bullied).
The pair ensure the film motors along, each self-professed geeks of classic Hollywood story structure, offering satisfying beats that serve audience expectation. And Zemeckis, despite being a technical director (note the long crane shot and zoom into the odometer for the film’s opening scene), gives Russell and Warden every chance to impress thanks to the former’s ad-libbed exuberance and the latter’s hot-tempered outbursts; each competing to offer Used Cars’ funniest moments.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Starring: Kurt Russell, Jack Warden, Gerrit Graham, Deborah Harmon
Released: 1980 / Genre: Comedy
Country: USA / IMDB
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Used Cars is released on limited edition Blu-ray in the UK on August 12, 2019.