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The Comedy Stylings of Kurt Russell: Used Cars and Captain Ron

  Kurt Russell has enjoyed a career that not every actor can boast, he has been a star since he was a child and remains a star into his autumn years, in a variety of roles, often action oriented. But what doesn't get mentioned often enough is how adept at comedy he is, though it shouldn't be a surprise from the guy who got a laugh back in the nineteen-sixties by kicking the shin of Elvis Presley. Walt Disney noted his potential and signed him up for a string of live action, lighthearted fantasy-themed movies where Russell played Dexter Riley, a talented college student always getting into scrapes: in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, for instance, Dexter was turned into a human computer.

Although these were popular (and fairly cheap to make), hip kids of the turn of the sixties into the seventies turned their nose up at them, and Russell, already a conservative, proceeded to ignore the flak he got for taking the equally conservative Disney schilling. That did not stop him taking up professional baseball in the early seventies, but he returned to acting, most memorably on television with his starring role as Presley in John Carpenter's miniseries Elvis, gyrating his hips, shooting televisions and so forth. Still, these remained pretty safe bets, yet as the eighties dawned something happened, and Russell's knack for humour was tapped.

In 1980, Used Cars should have been a huge hit, but it followed a pattern that Russell would see for the rest of the decade where audiences did not so much go to the theatres to see his movies, and discovered them later, sometimes much later, on home video. It was written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, with the latter forging his directing career with material that was unmistakably part of the movement in adult comedy a million miles away from Disney, yet while its contemporaries such as Animal House, Airplane! and Caddyshack were runaway successes, Used Cars was lumped in with the frankly hacky near-the-knuckle efforts around instead.

Yet Used Cars, and indeed those big successes in screen comedy, owed a lot to the sort of vaudeville where blue humour was expected, the sort of gags that you'd hear from the comedian between the strippers and that burlesque tradition was often continued by having actual nudity in the movies. The worst of these were about as much fun as a night out in a dingy strip club, but when the material sang, they could soar to great heights of hilarity, though even then it would not necessarily be the case from minute one to the end credits. While Used Cars had the occasional longueur, Gale and Zemeckis had sufficiently polished their screenplay to a gleaming finish.

Helping was a cast well versed in comedy and well-served by that script, with veteran Jack Warden in dual roles as the nice salesman brother and the nasty salesman brother, their rivalry sparking the plot where the evil Roy tried to take over his sibling's car lot - across the street! - so a highway can be constructed through it. What Roy hasn't counted on is Russell's Rudy Russo, his brother's right hand man and aspiring politician who while he is not as vile as Roy, is nevertheless as amoral when it comes to getting one over on the customer and anyone who tries to get in his way. The message was none too subtle: politicians are no better than used car salesmen.

This obviously appealed to Russell's libertarian views, which is likely why he applied himself with such skill and flair, Russo should really be one of his defining performances as a star if enough people had checked it out. As it was, the raucous, subversive, even lewd comedy fell under the radar to be a cult movie for those who loved to discover such underappreciated gems, with a string of big laughs from a cast that Russell headed, Gerrit Graham on top form as the superstitious salesman, Frank McRae as the rough and ready mechanic, Deborah Harmon as the daughter who is willingly corrupted in an "if you can't beat 'em" fashion, and seasoned comics in smaller roles.

It was a pleasure to see such a well-constructed comedy, where no matter how crude it was, a lot of care and attention had gone into it, and that's why it continues to pick up fans. Russell tried his hand to action star roles for much of the rest of his career, but he never quite left comedy behind, and Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China was in that mould, reteaming with Russell after Escape from New York for a ridiculous, Hong Kong-inspired romp which again saw the leading man shine, but was ignored at the cinema and left to be found later on VHS, television showings and later discs and streaming. But Kurt wasn't done with comedy yet, he knew he was good at it.

He followed this with Overboard, alongside his partner Goldie Hawn, which did better than Big Trouble in Little China and also found a large audience on VHS, though among females rather than males. It was a comedy, and he was pursuing the action genre, which was why he was drafted in to replace Patrick Swayze on Tango and Cash opposite Sylvester Stallone, a famously problem-strewn production that made a lot of money, but had cost too much to make to turn a decent profit; yet once again, home video would be a Kurt Russell movie's saviour. With the nineties upon him, he seemed to give up on trying to make the audience laugh.

Aside from a few titles, Russell has been more serious than funny in the second half of his career, though no less popular among dedicated movie buffs, sort of a film star equivalent of writer John Milius, a conservative who liberals admire. His comedies from that era ranged from the bad taste 3000 Miles to Graceland (again with the Elvis) or the megahit Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, but these were hyphenates: action-comedy, science fiction-comedy, like that. However, in 1992 he had another box office disappointment that yet again, picked up aficionados on home video, and it was a Disney effort - technically a Touchstone effort. Captain Ron.

This had a plot that with a little sanding away of the rough edges could have been something Russell could have starred in during the seventies for The House of Mouse, where he played a salty sea dog recruited to bring a family of four's inherited tub around the Caribbean to a location where it could be assessed to see how much profit the family would make if they sold it. This brood, led by dad Martin Short and mom Mary Kay Place, could do with the money as in none more nineties establishing they are stressed about their work in the big city, so the theme of escapism raises its head, with Ron promising adventure, however obliquely, they may not want.

But of course they do! Although this was PG-13, that was the benefit of the Touchstone brand, so there was a smattering of swearing, crass humour bordering on the sexual (though at least Ron hits in the mother and not the teenage daughter), and light violence, yet nothing the punters of the day would be too shocked at. That they didn't show up to watch it was no slight on Russell, for he is the reason it has its fans today, yes, it was pretty safe, unambitious stuff, quite unlike the storming performance in Used Cars, but he once again displayed his comic chops as a character who was uncultured and driven by basic desires, though he was not a lout.

Bits of business like the family thinking he's dead when he's simply sleeping with his eyepatch over his good eye, not his glass eye, were genuinely amusing, and you wish director Thom Eberhardt (who co-wrote the screenplay) had taken the potential further, made things more ridiculous instead of playing on the overall modest charm around its most valuable player, Russell. So Captain Ron, with its not very dangerous pirates and dad-humiliation, was a reliable bet for those who knew its leading man was always worth a look when offered an opportunity to get to grips with a character he could truly invest in, be that Snake Plissken or Dexter Riley or a planet. If you wanted to see what he could do when the film trusted him to let rip with his sheer charisma and promise of a good time at the movies if you let him, then Used Cars was well worth your time; show Captain Ron to the kids, but leave Used Cars for the comedy connoisseurs.

[Eureka have released Used Cars on Blu-ray with masses of special features:

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, producer/co-writer Bob Gale, and star Kurt Russell
Isolated Score Track (Patrick Williams score)
Isolated Score Track (Unused Ernest Gold score)
"Would You Buy a Used Car from These Men? " Getting Used Cars made with producer Bob Gale [27 mins]
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].]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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