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Our review of Used Cars, published February 14th, 2002, is also available.
There is a class of early '80s comedy beloved by cinefiles and casual film fans alike. Most of them are in some way touched by the late, great Harold Ramis: Stripes, Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation—all titles tossed around as "classics" and, to one degree or another, deserving of such a status.
One movie that doesn't get mentioned in those same sentences but which has every single right to is Robert Zemeckis' 1980 comedy Used Cars, as crass and brilliantly rowdy a comedy as any of the era. Kurt Russell stars as Rudy Russo, a Phoenix-based used car salesman who dreams of striking it rich as a crooked politician in the Arizona senate. He works for Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden, While You Were Sleeping), whose younger brother Roy (also Warden) runs the competing lots across the street. In order to keep his business alive, Roy attempts to collect an inheritance and have his older brother bumped off—but Rudy, not wanting Roy to see a dime of the money intended for his campaign—schemes to cover up the death. Before long, the two dealerships are engaged in a quickly-escalating battle to bring in the most customers and sell off the most cars.
The plot description for Used Cars can't do the movie justice, because screenwriters Zemeckis and Bob Gale (the longtime writing partners of movies like I Wanna Hold Your Hand!, 1941 and, of course, Back to the Future) have created a comedy full of unexpected twists and turns—problems compile, lies must be proven true and 250 cars have to travel across state lines in under two hours. There's a good deal of Back to Future's DNA in Used Cars (which might explain why I love it) in the way that Zemeckis and Gale keep tossing new problems on top of problems and wind up the plot like a clock. The film demonstrates the same love of chaos on display in their script for 1941, minus that movie's big-budget bloat and excess.
Not to say there's anything particularly refined about Used Cars, which is one of its best qualities. The film fully embraces the spirit of the cheap salesman—it's fast and it's flashy and you're more than happy to buy what it's selling. It's rowdy and dark at times but never mean-spirited. The movie is too much fun to have a nasty streak. Every actor, from Russell and Warden to the supporting players like Gerrit Graham, Deborah Harmon, Michael McKean and Grandpa Al Lewis, is clearly having a blast on screen. It translates. It goes on too long and eventually spins out of control, but Zemeckis and Gale can't help themselves. This is a comedy that takes big swings.
Twilight Time's HD transfer is solid, with the 1.85:1-framed image receiving a 1080p upgrade that's a little grainy (this relatively low-budget comedy never had the slickest appearance) but surprisingly clean. Colors are natural and detail is consistently strong. Two lossless audio options are provided: the first is the movie's original mono mix, while the second is a souped-up 5.1 surround option. Both work, with the surround mix offering more robust effects but faring mostly the same when it comes to the dialogue.
Only one truly new feature has been added for this Blu-ray, but the good news is that Twilight Time has ported over the extras from the original DVD (the label doesn't always offer bonus content with their releases, though they seem to be better about it of late). This means that the commentary with Zemeckis, Gale and Kurt Russell has been retained, and it alone is worth the cost of the disc—assuming you're able to pick it up before it goes for outrageous sums on eBay, that is. There's a decent amount of production information, but what makes the commentary such a blast is Russell's laugh, as he cracks up at both the movie and the conversation for almost the entire running time. It's maybe the most entertaining thing I can think of. Also included is a collection of outtakes, a gag reel, some still galleries with behind-the-scenes photos and advertising material, the original theatrical trailer and two isolated score audio options. The first contains only the finished score from Patrick Williams, while a second contains a totally unused score Ernest Gold. That's pretty neat.
Maybe I'm just blinded by the Kurt Russell rule (which states that Kurt Russell Rules), but I love Used Cars. It's messy and raucous and unwieldy, but that's who Zemeckis and Gale were at this point in their careers. It's so much fun to watch them orchestrate such anarchy, to watch Russell cut loose in a comedy (that's not Captain Ron), to watch Jack Warden play multiple roles—there are simply too many pleasures for me to not champion the movie as one of the best underrated comedies of the early '80s.
It's a steal.
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