Released by: Twilight Time Releasing
Released on: April 8th, 2014.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Kurt Russell, Jack Warden, Gerrit Graham, Deborah Harmon, Michael McKean
Year: 1980 Purchase From Screen Archives
Before he helmed blockbusters like Romancing The Stone and Back To The Future, Robert Zemeckis directed Used Cars, a low budget comedy made in 1980 that he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Bob Gale that was produced by Steven Spielberg.
The premise is this – a nice old guy named Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) runs a clunky used car dealership across the street from his highfaluting twin brother Roy L. Fuchs (also warden). They’re competitive and they don’t get along. When it turns out that the mayor Roy has been paying off all this time is actually going to put a highway off ramp through his lot and not through Luke’s, Roy has his mechanic Mickey (Michael Talbott) impersonate a customer, take Luke for a crazy test drive and basically give him a heart attack. He dies, but his loyal sales guy, Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) and his co-workers Jeff (Gerritt Graham) and Jim (Frank McRae) don’t want Roy to get the lot. To prevent this, they bury Luke in his old Edsel but tell everyone he actually took off that night in the car for Miami Beach.
Rudy, who has to come up with the money he needs for his proposed senate race quickly, runs a good con but Roy is onto him. When Luke’s estranged daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon) shows up after a ten year absence, however, Roy knows she’ll get the lot if Luke really is dead. Rudy can’t help but fall for the blonde with ‘great legs’ but after getting to know her he has a change of heart, if not a change in sales tactics, and a series of crazy tricks and sabotage attempts follow – but what’ll happen when Barbara finds out what really happened to her old man?
Quick paced and plenty zany, Used Cars has the right mix of raunch and heart to work really, really well. The script works in enough of the lunatic fringe that it remains pretty unpredictable, even if the ending is a little bit of a cliché. What really makes the situations works as well as they do (and given how absurd they can often be) are the characters. So when the guys trying to save Luke’s lot resort to getting strippers up on cars to draw attention or recruit a couple of tech guys (played by Lenny and Sqiggy themselves, Michael McKean and David Lander) we like them enough so that we’re not paying attention to minor details like realism, plausibility or common sense and the movie is all the better for it.
Jack Warden is great in the dual role. He plays Luke as a bit of a good natured con, not necessarily the most honest guy on the planet but far from reprehensible. On the flipside, he plays Roy as the complete opposite. He would seem to be more respected but he’s the corrupt one and the one willing to resort to murder to get what he wants. Watching the seasoned actor take on two completely different characters in the same is a lot of fun as he really does a great job of giving them each their own distinct personalities.
Leading the fray, however, is a young and ridiculously charming Kurt Russell. While he might be content telling gullible customers those re-painted taxi cabs aren’t repainted taxi cabs at all but actually cars with yellow primer underneath, when push comes to shove he sides with the right guys. Russell plays the rascally type well and he’s perfect in the part. When he meets Deborah Harmon’s Barbara, we know instantly she’ll make a (slightly) better man out of him, and it’s no surprise to anyone reading this that she does. They have enough chemistry together to make this work and she’s pretty enough and kind enough that you can see why he’d be intrigued by her. Harmon’s performance isn’t nearly as engaging but her character doesn’t need that the way the character of Rudy does. Supporting work from Gerritt Graham (Beef from Phantom Of The Paradise!), Frank McRae and of course, McKean and Lander, is also uniformly enjoyable.
It might be cynical and it might be outlandish, even crude at times, but Used Cars is, more importantly than all of that, very funny. Time has been kind to it (either that or it’s been unkind to car salesmen), and it remains a really enjoyable watch well worth revisiting.
Used Cars looks excellent on Blu-ray from Twilight Time, framed at 1.85.1 in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. There is one shot around the ten minutes mark that looks really soft, almost out of focus, but this existed on the old DVD release too and is likely an issue with the original elements. Outside of that, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking issue with the visuals here. Colors are reproduced beautifully and detail is quite strong through the movie. There are no issues with noise reduction or edge enhancement and compression artifacts never really figure into things either. There’s some film grain noticeable throughout but very little in the way of actual print damage to note. All in all this is clean, colorful and quite film like and it offers a pretty massive upgrade over the previous DVD release.
Audio options are provided in English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and English DTS-HD Mono with optional subtitles provided in English only. The 5.1 mix opens up the music and effects used in the movie a bit but keeps the dialogue mostly front and center in the mix, in keeping with the original mono mix. Both tracks sound clean and clear and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion.
Carried over from the DVD release is the excellent audio commentary with Director Robert Zemeckis, Writer Bob Gale, and Actor Kurt Russell. It’s a pretty active track and the three of them are obviously having a blast strolling down memory lane here, constantly cracking up at one another’s jokes but still managing to get a lot of information about the history of the picture, where the ideas for it came from, what it was like working with some of the different cast members and more. They also cover why live ammo was used on the shoot for certain scenes, what went into staging some of the stunts used in the movie and quite a bit more. It’s a really well paced track with a great sense of humor throughout that is a lot of fun to listen to.
Twilight Time have also included a collection of Gag Reel & Outtakes, presented in fullframe from a fairly rough looking source. Some of this stuff is funny but it’s mostly worth watching to get a quick glimpse at what it was like on set during the shoot. The disc also includes a vintage radio interview with Kurt Russell, a few radio promo spots, a vintage TV commercial for the actual car lot where the movie was shot in which Russell appears, four different still galleries and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. And as is the norm with Twilight Time releases, we get the obligatory Isolated Score Track in DTS-HD as well as a second Isolated Score Track that presents an interesting alternate Unused Score for the movie. Menus and chapter stops are also included on the disc.
Inside the keepcase is an insert booklet of liner notes written by Julie Kirgo in which she discusses the history of the picture, how Spielberg came onboard to produce and why some of the characters featured in the movie are as effective as they are. There are some nice vintage photos and advertising art pieces used in the booklet as well.
The Final Word:
Used Cars remains a really great watch, a breezy comedy that keeps the gags coming fast and funny performed by a strong cast and featuring some really memorable set pieces. It’s crass, goofy, and a whole lot of fun. The Blu-ray release from Twilight Time sounds good and looks excellent and the disc features a pretty solid array of supplements too. Fans should consider this one essential. Trust me.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!