Blu-ray Review: Used Cars - Twilight Time Limited Edition

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The raunchy 1980 Robert Zemeckis’ comedy Used Cars is a worthwhile mess—the kind of comedy that still packs a number of hearty laughs without ever truly being as great as you might remember. In fact, there are enough promising-yet-bungled ideas here that someone might do well to remake it. This was only Zemeckis’ second directorial effort (co-written with Bob Gale), following his 1978 debut, I Wanna Hold Your Hand. He and Gale had previously co-scripted Steven Spielberg’s underrated epic comedy 1941; Spielberg executive produced Used Cars. Kurt Russell had something of a breakout role here, largely mired up to this point in family-oriented Disney fare and TV movies. He plays Rudy Russo, a used car salesman aspiring to enter politics.

It’s a ballsy, satirical comedy that throws a lot at the wall. Not nearly all of it sticks, but enough does to maintain interest. Rudy works for Luke (Jack Warden), the aging, bad heart-plagued owner of the New Deal car lot. Luke’s brother Roy (also Warden) manages the competition, another lot across the street. Both brothers are highly unscrupulous, but Roy actively seeks to indirectly cause his own brother’s death in order for him to inherit New Deal. That easily qualifies Roy as the more despicable. But when Luke does, in fact, succumb to a heart attack (played for laughs in the film’s most tasteless scene), Rudy and his co-workers Jeff (Gerrit Graham) and Jim (Frank McRae) conspire to hide the body. There’s no way Rudy’s going to let Roy gain control of the lot—after all, he’s in the middle of campaigning for state senate. He’s got an image to uphold.

Used Cars cover (215x280).jpgRegarding that political campaign, this is where Used Cars stumbles the most unforgivably. Roy’s run for office amounts to little more than slapping bumper stickers (emblazoned with his slogan, “Trust me”) on newly-purchased cars as their driven away. The idea of a sleazy used car salesman adapting his unethical practices for usage in public office is rich with possibilities. Those possibilities go totally unexplored, eventually giving way to a subplot involving the deceased Luke’s daughter, Barbara (Deborah Harmon). Long estranged from her father, she has no idea he has died. Once she becomes involved in managing the New Deal lot, a false advertising charge (resulting from a TV commercial doctored by Roy) turns into a belabored tangent that dominates the third act.

As a relic from a very different age, Used Cars remains an intermittently funny time-capsule piece. Quite literally, they just don’t make them like this anymore—for better or worse. Frank McRae is saddled with a role that’s an unfortunate reminder of an even more distant era, one in which African-American performers were not offered many opportunities to play dignified roles. In a movie full of lying, scheming cheats, McRae (the only minority actor playing a significant part) is required to play the most bumbling, inarticulate, and inconsequential of all.

Then there’s the first time Rudy and company utilize the services of Freddie and Eddie (David L. Lander and Michael McKean, Laverne & Shirley’s Squiggy and Lenny), a pair of techies who are able to jam TV reception to illegally broadcast New Deal commercials. Far be it from me to bemoan the inclusion of a little T&A in a bawdy comedy, but when the guys converge on their accidentally-stripped spokesmodel, the groping amounts to nothing short of a sexual assault played for laughs.

Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-ray (only 3,000 copies were pressed) looks nothing short of spectacular. Anyone familiar with Used Cars in a previous home video format (or from cable broadcasts) will be left slack-jawed by how fresh this film looks. So many movies from early-to-mid-‘80s are a mess of overly high contrast, over-saturated colors, and intrusive grain levels—even on Blu-ray. Not the case here. Except for one very brief, very blurry shot early on of Luke (on the lot with his ultra-cute, ultra-well-trained dog), Donald M. Morgan’s cinematography is presented with consistent natural grain, accurate colors, and crisp clarity. Audio choices include DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround and DTS-HD MA mono; both tracks sound terrific.

A regularly occurring special feature of Twilight Time releases gets a cool tweak here. Not only is Patrick Williams’ score included as an isolated track, but we also get a track offering Ernest Gold’s unused score. Audio commentary by Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Kurt Russell should be fun for fans. There’s also a rough-looking gag/outtake reel, promotional materials (including a real commercial Kurt Russell shot for a Chrysler dealership), and numerous still galleries. Julie Kirgo offers enthusiastic praise for all involved in her booklet essay.

Used Cars feels like the product of undisciplined writers, bursting with funny ideas, who neglected to organize and focus their work. It’s all over the place, concluding with a witless “race against the clock” to deliver enough cars to New Deal to justify a false claim (that the lot has “a mile of cars”) that management never actually made in the first place. It’s a bunch of overheated feel-good nonsense that effectively sinks whatever subversive elements that were exhibited earlier.

For ordering information on Twilight Time’s limited Used Cars Blu-ray release, visit their distributor Screen Archives.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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