Monday, March 5, 2012
CHECKERED FLAG OR CRASH (1977)
This obscurity is from an actual movie company: Universal Studios! It's nice to see something from one of the big boys, not that American-International or Republic aren't major. A studio movie with real actors, too!
And it appears to have been made during one sort of zeitgeist or another. Although, I can only guess which one. Probably not Star Wars this time.
Checkered Flag or Crash opens with a montage of rally cars being geared up for a big race, set to twangy "Dukes of Hazzard" / Smokey and the Bandit type music.
Our hero, I suppose, is "Walkaway" Madden, played by Joe Don Baker in a blue apple jack. He's another grinning rascal (unappealing asshole) we're supposed to instantly like. Like Mitchell. He's getting ready, along with many other racers, for the Manila 1000, in the Philippines, a three day off-road rally race with a $50,000 purse.
Reporter C.C. (Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon) arrives in the most 70s fashions of 1977. Her company gave Walkaway his new buggy in exchange for letting her go on this rally. She first talks with Bo (Larry Hagman), the race promoter, who explains the rally. Checkpoints, matching times, one thousand miles, etc. C.C. never looks thrilled to be there.
C.C. meets Walkaway, and he instantly hates her, partly because she's a girl, but mostly because he's that determined to win. "Believe me, you don't know what you're getting into." She's insistent. "I'm getting into your car." She wins because he's contractually obligated, but also because he thinks she'll quit or get killed. He calls it "a thousand miles of plane crashes." And he has a rep for crashing, so determined is he to win. "Lady, I'm a crazy man! I just don't care!"
And then the film just suddenly stops. It goes black, and there's a loud boop. What is this? Is this a print for TV, and that's where the commercial breaks go? It does this a good half-dozen times through the film.
When we return, CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! Vehicles are just crashing! It's Bo watching stock footage. Outside, the buggies and bikes line up. Walkaway gives C.C. some tissues to plug her ears and dramamine, not that it'll help. We see many, many other racers, and there's commentary, so it's like a real life Pod Race scene. There's more twangy type music. And, the race begins! The big spectacle is the bottle neck. First one through wins $5,000. It also means lots of crashes. The carnage is plenty. "That's what folks want to see!" says the announcer, real life racer Parnelli Jones as himself. (He can't act one lick.)
Cameras are put on the vehicles for "realistic" ground footage, but they're not stabilized in any way. I suspect they were literally, crudely strapped down. Maybe even duct taped. The footage looks like crap. It bounces and vibrates and is blurry, and it's all edited with no context or sense of geography. Kids today would love it! What were you expecting, Citizen Kane?!
A title theme begins to play. Checkered flag or crash / Ain't no in-between. Endlessly, buggies and bikes crash. They fly off-road into ditches, into bodies of water. The driver gets up, and is all, "What was that? Aw, shucks." Over and over and over, against big 70s folksy country music or big 70s action brass and bongos. Literally nothing happens, not even in the context of the race. There's no drama, since Walkaway is No. 1 and we don't know any of the other racers yet.
Well, the first leg of the race ends. C.C. is a little staggered, but Walkaway is impressed that she didn't puke. They have lunch. It turns out the mysterious racer is black in a beautiful blonde lady (Daina House, Playboy Playmate Jan. 1976). Shocking! It becomes night. C.C. talks with Doc, a mechanic we met earlier. He seemed like a doofus, but he's also in the race. They talk about luck and superstition. No great insights. The film still has a while before it explains that Doc and Walkway used to be race partners until Doc went solo and Walkaway is still a little bitter about it. Doc still tries to foist a pink rabbit's foot on Walkaway every race, this time by giving it to C.C. early on.
Day 2. Walkaway is drunk and drowsy, but full of swagger. A typical Joe Don Baker character. Some suave racer in white flirts with racer lady in black, though neither ever has any dialogue. We're told about a detour or something. Walkaway takes off, still no. 1. C.C. records some notes. No facts about the race, just her poetic musings, like all movie journalists. More country music and 70s doom music. There's some drama when Walkaway breaks a tire rod and replaces it with a rod from a sign that he steals. Paco Ramirez, a racer in orange, takes the lead.
Everyone stops at a checkpoint. I'm not sure why. Literally, everyone just sits around waiting. They kill time (in a movie!), not saying a word until they get going again. Down the road, racer orange crashes. Walkaway takes the lead again. C.C. says, "I'm beginning to like this." He replies, "Stick with Ferraris and champagne!" Meanwhile, we're notified that there's been a flash flood! Ooh!
Walkaway stops to fix a wheel again. Racer orange takes the lead again. C.C. gets out to take some pics, because she's a journalist, and Walkaway ditches her. She has a fit, and he smiles as he tosses her bag out of the car. Chump! The music is properly goofy, with big bass drum beats. So, C.C. walks back, complaining about her life on her recorder.
Bo picks her up in a helicopter, and tells her about the flash flood that's ruined the third leg of the race. Impassable valley, etc. He's broke, though, and is depending on the TV rights or something to bail him out. He meets with all the racers at the hotel. Bo said he is canceling the race and has rejected an offer from the backers. That offer? Double the prize money! So, all of the racers are on-board! Let's do this! In a sweet moment, Bo explains to Walkaway how he never got to be a racer. Walkaway figures out that Bo is lying about talking to the backers.
That night, there's a brawl between Doc and Walkaway almost, but then Doc brawls some other guy, with Kung Fu Foley. They all laugh. C.C. is nervous about the dangerous climax, but asks Doc is she can join him in his vehicle. He agrees, and is gentlemanly about it.
The race resumes. More country music, more 70s action orchestra. We never see anything of a flood, just the one-time obstacle of some construction equipment. In fact, the road looks damn dry. The racers crash more. One guy flies off a cliff. Racer orange dies. The Doom Buggy crashes. Doc takes lead, but Walkaway tries to kill him. They both crash, their vehicles badly damages. They have it out, but C.C. breaks it up.
Doc's vehicle is repaired. Walkaway tries to steal it. Doc flips a coin, and Walkaway punches him out. Before he takes off in his stolen vehicle, C.C., inexplicably, kisses Walkaway, as a ploy to toss in the pink rabbit's foot. Doc and C.C. are picked up by Bo.
The end is in sight, when Walkaway crashes. I think he crossed the finish line? His vehicle tumbles and rolls and there's smoke. It all but explodes. Everyone, concerned, especially C.C., races up to him. Some audio is added where he asks for help and sticks up his thumb. C.C. smiles, even though, under the heap, he's probably mangled. There's a flashback to their first meeting. "Lady, I'm a crazy man!" again. The music sounds doomful, and we close on the image of his thumb up.
I don't know what zeitgeist this is riding. Smokey and the Bandit came out in 1977, but the end credits of this say it was produced in 1976. "Dukes" was another two years yet. There has to be some reason for poorly slapping together a B-film about rally racing in the Philippines that wastes the time and talents of a real studio and actual people. It's not exposing some rally sub-culture. It's no technological accomplishment. So ???
From the director of A Woman Called Golda and Dracula A.D. 1972. And from the writer of Enter the Dragon and Border Cop! (I very much suspect everyone got roped into this.)
This does not work as a movie. There are no characters. There is no story. It looks like shit, especially for a major studio picture, even if it is a B-movie. I've seen B-movies that don't look awful. It is monotonous. Next to nothing happens. I wrote a lot up there, but scenes with Baker and/or Sarandon are very few. There's next to no dialogue. It's mostly random people crashing, hideous padding.
Not only is there no substance, but Walkaway is an asshole. He's a jerk who cheats. I'm sure it's cute that he wants to win so badly, but the entire film I was hoping he would die, especially after he stole the car. I suspect he did die, but they changed the ending. It's like Shane, almost ambiguous.
It's awful, but it can be viewed as a properly retro jaunt, something authentic from when there were these kind of Good Ol' Boy movies, movies starring Joe Don Baker. It has that sound and that look. It could be a real gem for the D-film aficionado. And, a young Susan Sarandon in a pink jumpsuit and neckerchief.
Checkered Flag or Crash (can't possibly be the original title) has 74 votes on IMDb HERE. It just became available for streaming on Netflix. Otherwise, it's not on VHS or DVD or other digital.