In the 1960s and ’70s, before he broke through as an action movie hero, Kurt Russell – legendary film director John Carpenter’s right hand man in the likes of 1981’s Escape From New York, 1982’s The Thing and 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China – was a TV actor, starring in episodes of the likes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. , The Fugitive, Lost in Space and also made-for-TV movie, Elvis, where he starred as The King himself in 1979. So although he’d made something of a name for himself thus far, it was another challenging role that would help push him even further into the public consciousness in 1980, as he starred as Randy Russo, the not so by-the-book car salesman in Robert Zemeckis comedy Used Cars. Not a box office success at the time, the film has now achieved cult status thanks to Zemeckis’ style of comedy and Kurt Russell’s now legendary name and full throttle performance in this somewhat screwball comedy.
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A young and cunning car salesman, Randy Russo (Russell) works at a used car lot, the ironically named New Deal, which is owned by Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), an old guy struggling with his heart who probably should have retired a long time ago but for arch rival who is also a used car salesman struggling to keep his business alive. And not only is his business directly across the street from New Deal, said arch rival is Luke’s brother Roy (also Warden, impressively tackling two roles). So as you can imagine, this is a recipe for one-upmanship and all sorts of tricks and plans to better one another. And there’s no doubt that the film offers plenty of that as we see cash on a fishing rod being used to distract a customer, a dog playing dead (in a superb animal acting performance from Peanuts as Luke’s faithful companion, Toby) and strippers dancing on cars to lure customers – the tricks becoming more extreme as the film goes on. And in amongst the madness, Randy wants to run for state Senate. Luke agrees to give Russo the $10,000 needed to invest in the campaign but only if he can keep the New Deal business alive.
The good thing about Used Cars is the fact that it could have been a simple slapstick comedy about two used car lots battling it out with nothing else, and to be fair it still would have worked, the slapstick and over-the-top comedy moments mostly working and the cast doing a great job. But by writing in Randy’s campaign for state Senate and he and his fellow lot workers using that as a tool to promote the car lot in sometimes quite shocking (for the time) ways, as well as using black comedy and tragi-comedy as tools here, Zemeckis and writing partner Bob Gale ensured that Used Cars would rise above “zany comedy” status and more into the realms of satirical, black comedy. It’s almost as if the slapstick/physical comedy scenes are there as a shield for the darker aspects of the film so they can reveal themselves gradually as the story goes on. This may be why Used Cars did not connect with viewers on initial release, but nearly forty years(!?) later it’s melding of silly, satirical, dark but also uplifting comedy seems to mostly work, proving that longevity is something to keep in mind when watching films; something that might not look great now could well be a good watch years down the line.
That being said, there are times while watching Used Cars that you think certain viewers would likely get offended somehow. The way that Randy and co deal with Luke’s death, (despite it being what he would have wanted) – lie to everyone about it, including Luke’s daughter and potential love interest for Randy, Barbara (Deborah Harmon) and then bring him back in a twisted but still darkly funny scheme (and scene) to fool Roy Fuchs and co into believing he’s still alive – might not sit well with certain viewers. Throw in strippers and bare breasts being grabbed, and 2019’s keyboard warriors might enjoy dissecting the nature of these scenes. But one could also argue that these scenes are not done in an overly exploitative way, and – taken as they were intended – add to the film’s overall fun feel.
Used Cars was a great vehicle (pun intended) for Robert Zemeckis, who went on to massive success directing the likes of the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump, What Lies Beneath and Flight. Used Cars might not quite be up there with most of those but it’s certainly an eye-catching work, with a bunch of strong performances from leads Kurt Russell and Jack Warden, as well as Gerrit Graham, Frank McRae, and Michael Mckean as Luke and Randy’s colleagues/friends. In addition, its clever script, genuinely funny attempts at physical comedy, exciting finale and satirical nature as it looks at American culture is something well worth seeking out for comedy fans everywhere.
Eureka have put together a nice package for this release including an audio commentary, isolated tracks from the film’s original score, a making of documentary with writer/producer Bob Gale, outtakes, gag reel and more. A limited edition booklet with new essays on the film is also available – first print run only – so an essential buy for fans and a worthwhile purchase for newcomers too.
Used Cars is out on Blu-ray from 12th August, courtesy of Eureka Entertainment.