Used Cars epitomises both the end of a depressed, cynical 1970’s for America and the birth of a gaudy, loud, colourful 1980’s.
The used car salesman is one of the almost cliched examples of textbook hucksterism in the Western world, we are almost programmed to distrust the line of fast-talking, buddy buddy technique exuded here by Kurt Russell’s salesman Rudy Russo. Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale rely on that textual assumption on the audience’s part to sell Used Cars, which pits Rudy’s aspirational salesman and his ageing, low-fi boss Luke against their rival, over the road, slick car sales operation led by Luke’s loud and nasty twin brother, Roy L. Fuchs (both parts being played by veteran character actor Jack Warden). It’s a traditional high concept comedic set up, with the audience designed to root for Rudy’s crooked underdog as he tries to stick it to an even more crooked Man.
Used Cars, in that respect, works as a piece both then and indeed now. We are not short of salesmanship and crooked hucksterism in our modern age, and Rudy’s aspirations to run for state Senate and combine his penchant for selling dodgy cars with a political bent feel particularly acute given the White House is currently home to the biggest con man in modern history. Released during the Carter Administration, the short period of a lesser-known President who inherited the shock of Nixon’s disgrace and a subsequent economic downturn, Used Cars has one eye on the glitzy rhetoric and showmanship of the coming Ronald Reagan, whose neoliberal approach mixed with a halcyon yearning for a simpler, greater America, ushered in an era in which the Rudy Russo’s of the world would profit while millions still suffer the consequences today.
While a comedy of its time, and one which has lost some punch over time, Used Cars still makes sense, when it could have ended up lost to the ages.
Interestingly, Used Cars originated with writer John Milius, who would pen Apocalypse Now and direct Conan the Barbarian amongst other achievements, and the rising star of director Steven Spielberg in the mid-1970’s.
It is easy to forget that Zemeckis, while less prolific or successful, was inarguably one of the New Hollywood ‘movie brats’ who inherited the blockbuster transformation of cinema following the counter-cultural cinematic revolution of the late 1960’s which hastened the end of the classic studio system. Zemeckis, and frequent writing partner Gale, convinced Milius and Spielberg—himself knee-deep in his ill-fated WW2 comedy 1941—to let them take it on, serving as the first significant project helmed by Zemeckis. Used Cars ended up a little in the shadow of their subsequent work – Romancing the Stone, which memorably partnered Kathleen Turner & Michael Douglas in a swashbuckling romantic fantasy, and beyond that a little-known sci-fi picture called Back to the Future…
The latter does mean that Zemeckis & Gale have a certain cache when you examine their scripts, given there is a strong argument that soup to nuts, Back to the Future might be the greatest screenplay of all time. Used Cars, however, is a much different beast. Openly looser, indeed at times improvisational as Russell was encouraged to take aspects of Rudy and play with them, there is a structure to Used Cars and a clear arc, but it refuses to quite hold together with the same coherency. It plays to the gallery, broadly, allowing Russell to tap into the smart-mouthed, all-American charm and goofiness he would later play to even greater effect in films such as Big Trouble in Little China, and indeed Warden—in his first R-rated feature—to have fun cussing wildly as the awful Roy, but it sometimes lacks memorable lines and key laughs at points it should be hitting them.
Used Cars, for me, is a stronger piece of cinematic history than a comedy that warrants returning to for copious chuckles and memorable set pieces. Zemeckis is still honing his directorial talents in a career that would ebb and flow from success to failure, across wildly different genres and narratives – he’s a talent who has never *quite* become the legend of a Spielberg or Coppola or Scorsese when perhaps he should, even with one or two stone-cold masterpieces under his belt. Used Cars feels like a development point for many of those involved, a key marker along the way which enjoys commenting on the growing fusion between American politics and capitalist showmanship that would define the decades it bridges, while laughing at the corrupt hypocrisy inherent in both.
Comedy, as always, is subjective and there would for sure exist a core, cult audience who would love Used Cars but, alas, it wasn’t entirely for me. It is, however, more than worthy of seeking out and experiencing.
Some decent bonus features from Eureka here, including two versions of the film with the main and rejected score, and when the latter is from the great Ernest Gold, you can’t go wrong. Also, Kurt Russell doing commentaries—with his laugh and manner—is just infectiously fun. Worth it for that alone.
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray
– Uncompressed LPCM (original mono presentation) and DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio options
– Optional English SDH subtitles
– Audio Commentary with director Robert Zemeckis, writer / producer Bob Gale, and star Kurt Russell
– Isolated Score Track (Patrick Williams score)
– Isolated Score Track (Unused Ernest Gold score)
– Interview with producer/co-writer Bob Gale
– Radio Interview with Kurt Russell
– Outtakes and Gag Reel
– Kurt Russell Chrysler Commercial
– Radio Spots
– Stills Galleries
– Original Theatrical Trailer
– Limited Edition Collector’s booklet featuring new essays by author Scott Harrison and film writer Phil Hoad [First print run only]
Used Cars is now available on Blu-Ray from Eureka Entertainment.