The Cannonball Run (1981) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A wide variety of eccentric competitors participate in a wild and illegal cross-country road race. However, the eccentric entrants will do anything to win the road race, including low-down, dirty tricks.

  • This comedy movie brings Burt Reynolds, Sir Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and an all-star cast to the starting line of the ultimate auto race, a madcap cross-country scramble that roars full-speed ahead. This action-comedy was inspired by an actual event: the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, an anything goes, all-stops-out, and very much illegal, competition that has grown to legendary proportions within the last ten years.

  • The plot of a cross-country road race was based on an actual event, the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, organized by Brock Yates to protest the 55 mile per hour speed limit then in effect in the United States The Cannonball was named for Erwin G. "Cannonball" Baker, who in the roaring 1920s, rode his motorcycle across the country. Many of the characters are based on ruses developed by real Cannonball racers over the several years that the event was run.

  • In this comedy, Burt Reynolds is an adventurer who decides to participate in an illegal and popular road race all over the country. There's an all-star cast of racers (Jackie Chan, Farrah Fawcett, Peter Fonda, Dean Martin, Sir Roger Moore, Sammy Davis, Jr. and others) that will do anything to outrun all the difficulties (including the police) and win the race. This action-comedy was based on an actual event: the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, a cross-country outlaw road race that has grown to legendary proportions.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Over the opening titles a Lamborghini Countach drives along at high speed on a desert highway. The car screeches to a halt near a 55 mile-an-hour speed limit sign. A beautiful woman hops out of the Lamborghini with a can of spray paint and sprays an X over the sign. She rushes back to the car and hops in and speeds off with the driver. The sports car is being chased by a trooper's Firebird from an unidentified state. The Lambo plays cat-and-mouse with the Firebird until they catch up. Radio chatter to the cruiser tells the trooper to give up the pursuit since they'll cross the Arizona border in a few minutes. The Lambo easily passes the cruiser and speeds off.

    All across the United States, lovers of high speed driving are making plans to participate in a nationwide race called the Cannonball Run. Racers will meet at a starting point in New England and race to Los Angeles. Their goal is to make the distance in the shortest amount of time. Exceeding the speed limit is encouraged however being stopped by the police will increase a racer's time. At a betting parlor, a man named Fenderbaum (Sammy Davis Jr) talks to famed sports commentator Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder about placing a bet for himself & his partner, driver Jamie Blake (Dean Martin) that will pay them $1 million. The two plan to race in a Ferrari 308 GT disguised as priests in the belief that the police will be lenient if they're stopped. The Greek takes the bet and Fenderbaum rebuffs the bookie's scoffing by saying God will be their copilot.

    Meanwhile, famed racer JJ McClure meets with his mechanic partner, Victor Prinzim about their plans to race in the Cannonball. When Victor arrives late at JJ's garage, the two discuss Victor's superhero alter ego, Captain Chaos, whom JJ has an intense disliking for. JJ and Victor want to race in a vehicle that will disguise their identity as high-speed drivers and yet still be somewhat gimmicky. When JJ gets them both in a boating accident, they're taken to a hospital in an ambulance. They talk to one of the paramedics (a cameo by the film's director Hal Needham) who tells them that they'll be at the hospital in no time flat because the ambulance can speed through traffic with little regard for traffic rules. JJ and Victor laugh, realizing they've found the perfect vehicle for the race.

    On a Japanese television show (much like The Tonight Show), 2 Japanese men show off the car they'll be racing: a 1980 Subaru DL that's been outfitted with computerized technology and a rocket engine. In another desert area, a sheik (Jamie Farr) drives his Rolls Royce at high speed and tells his bodyguards they'll be going with him. He tells his sister that he'll win the race with the power of Islam guiding him. Finally, Seymour Goldfarb Jr (Roger Moore) meets with his mother, who disdains his decision to join the Cannonballers.

    The remainder of the racers gather at a hotel in Connecticut. Fenderbaum and Blake have dressed in black priests' garb and Victor & JJ are dressed as paramedics. Also present at the hotel is AJ Foyt (George Furth) a staunch activist who discovers that most of the guests staying at the hotel are Cannonballers. Desiring to stop them any way he can, Foyt contacts the leader of his activist organization and gets them to begin setting up roadblocks down the racing line. Foyt also befriends a young woman, Pamela (Farrah Fawcett), who is a tree lover. In the hotel bar, JJ meets Pamela and begins to come on to her in the hopes that he can use her as a live patient during their run. JJ and Victor also need a doctor to ride with them. Victor finds a man named Nicholas Van Helsing (Jack Elam), a creepy proctologist who says he'll do the run with them for a mere $200.

    The race opens at night. Participants must obtain a time card and have it punched at the hotel and speed off into the night. Nearby, Foyt and Pamela are taking down license plate numbers to report to the police. As JJ and Victor make their way out they come across Foyt and Pamela, who have gotten themselves into an accident. Pamela is allowed in the ambulance but Foyt is left behind. Pamela realizes they've kidnapped her. While speeding through New Jersey, they're stopped by state troopers and have to bluff their way out of a citation. They claim the patient in the back of the ambulance has to be taken to UCLA Medical Center. Van Helsing corroborates their story, saying she can't be flown because of cystic lungs. The troopers let them go.

    In the Lamborghini we saw in the opening scene, Marcie (Adrienne Barbeau) and her partner Jill (Tara Buckman) dress in sexy outfits and unzip them in the presence of male troopers to avoid moving violations. In Pennsylvania, the ruse works on a trooper who lets them go. In Ohio, Fenderbaum and Blake catch up with JJ and Victor. While Blake distracts them offering to bless their vehicle and Pamela, Fenderbaum flattens one of the ambulance's tires. JJ and Victor get revenge in Missouri when they tell a local cop that the two in the Ferrari are sex-offenders disguised as priests.

    A few miles down the road a state police roadblock has been set up with the help of Foyt. Several of the Cannonballers are caught and their vehicles impounded. With the ambulance having transmission trouble, JJ asks a semi-truck driver to help them out: they put the ambulance on the the trucker's trailer and cover it with a large tarpaulin and make it past the roadblock.

    In a desert state Marcie and Jill are chased by a trooper who catches them. When Marcie unzips her coverall, it has little effect on the female trooper (Valerie Perrine). Elsewhere in the desert, the Japanese team in the Subaru use a computer to plot their route. The stealth tech on board their car keeps them from being caught by troopers as well.

    The Cannonballers are finally halted somewhere in Southern California, not far from the finish line. Road construction has the highway closed. As they wait for word that the road is clear, a fleet of Hell's Angels show up, led by their Chief Biker (Peter Fonda). Brad (Burt Convy) and his partner Shakey (Warren Berlinger) are both attacked by the bikers and a huge brawl breaks out. JJ doesn't want to get involved until Victor appears as Captain Chaos and joins the fray. The fight goes on for several minutes until the road opens again and everyone speeds off, the bikers left defeated.

    JJ and Victor's team seem certain to lose until Victor once again becomes Chaos and speeds past everyone. Near the finish line, Mad Dog (Rick Aviles) and Batman (Alfie Wise) crash their pickup and block the road. A foot race ensues and JJ hands the ticket off to Chaos, while tackling most of the remaining racers. Chaos, way out in front and chased only by Marcie, is about to punch the ticket to win when a woman screams that her baby is drowning. Chaos dives into the nearby harbor and rescues the woman's "baby" which turns out to be a dog and Marcie punches the clock, winning the race. JJ is furious with Victor and tells him that Captain Chaos will never reappear. Victor says he'll take on a new superhero persona, Captain USA.

    Foyt arrives on the scene and scolds everyone for their behavior. Goldfarb offers him a cigar and tells him to use the lighter in his Aston-Martin. Knowing that the lighter will activate the ejector seat, everyone waits eagerly. The trick doesn't work and when Goldfarb tries it, he's thrown into the harbor. The race is over and everyone celebrates with champagne.

    Outtakes play over the closing credits.

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