(Used Cars has some pretty amazing gags that depend on what you don’t know. I urge if you haven’t seen it to hold off on this review)
They don’t make movies like Used Cars anymore. Oh sure, comedies will play dark now and again, but it takes a special kind of movie to play dark enough to kill off its “cuddly old mentor character” in the opening reel. It takes a specialer kind of movie to use the increasingly grisly fates that befall his corpse as a running gag.
Used Cars follows Kurt Russell as the amoral head salesman of a broken down lot, whose trying to raise the fifty thousand dollars he needs to buy himself a seat in the state senate. Things escalate rapidly when the brother of the owner of Russell’s lot, murder’s his brother in an attempt to gain the extra lot. Russell having promised never to let the old man’s lot fall into his mercenary brother’s hands, starts an all out war. The result is a comedy that’s absolutely relentless.
Zemekis combines the character based comedy and relentless pace of The Looney Tunes with the “cram a gag in every corner of the frame aesthetic of Mad Magazine in its prime. And in the meantime manages to fit in one of the greatest mass car chases inbetween The Road Warrior and Gumball Alley. It’s a strident uber confident style of comedy, that is just unbearably fucking funny, and just kind of have to speak for itself. All I can say is out of context the following scene is pretty great. In context it’s nigh unbearably hilarious.
Kurt Russell anchors the film. Used Cars is a thoroughly cynical film. Its unthinkable that a movie like this would get made today without a scene to reaffirm that Russell is basically a decent softy underneath all the bluster. But Used Cars is too brave for such platitudes. Russell is an asshole at the beginning of the film, and he’s an asshole at film’s end. He struts through the movie like an amoral Bugs Bunny, with so much charisma to burn that we can’t help but like him, despite the reprehensible things he does. He’s just so good at blowing up the Elmer Fudd’s the film lines up for him.
To draw those two comparisons, you’d have to guess that Used Cars is a movie with some serious verve. Robert Zemekis it goes without saying, has become THE head cheerleader for Motion Capture Technology. It’s kind of a shame. To a certain extent this doesn’t come as a surprise. The best of Zemekis’s scripts have this kind of precision, that could only come from a dedicated control freak (Back To The Future is a fucking Swiss watch). And well before his obsession with Mo Cap, his tech head tendencies were in full flower (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, What Lies Beneath). The Mo Cap technique springs from a tendency to control every aspect of the frame, in a way that neither animation, nor live action will allow. It’s just too bad that a filmmaker who could make a film this loose, this wonderfully spontaneous and mad could fall to such a model maker’s impulse.