Comfortable and Furious

Used Cars (1980)

This magnum opus from Kurt Russell’s heyday reminds one of a time when movies existed seemingly for their own sake; rather than a line in a ledger, they were works of art instead of an appeal for relevance, a “statement” of some sort, or a way to polish one’s ego with a useless Academy Award nomination. In short, Used Cars is a pure film from that respect, intending to impress nobody, accomplish nothing, and add nothing to a resume that would eventually be poisoned with the despicable Forrest Gump. As the images ripple over the viewer, you realize that the strange sensation you feel is… entertainment.

It came as almost a shock when I first watched this many years after its release in the salad days of the early 1980s. Then, it was little-loved, barely raked in its production budget (inflated by that sweet, sweet cocaine) and disappeared with little trace. What the fuck, people? It has titties aplenty, wall to wall vulgarity, and Kurt Russell in full disco regalia. It almost speaks to a humorless America that, with this failure to recognize greatness, sent director Robert Zemeckis irredeemably down the dark pathway to soulless entertainments like Gump and Polar Express.

Kurt Russell is Rudy Russo, used car salesman extraordinaire, who works on a shitty car lot to raise the $60,000 he needs to buy the Democratic nomination for state senate. His ambition is plainspoken: “The machine wants a fresh face with no axe to grind who will tell the people what they want to hear – that’s what I was born to do!” The owner of said shitty lot is an ailing old man whose brother schemes to take over by any means. Out of selfish necessity rather than a sense of justice, Rudy works to prevent this from occurring so he can continue selling dilapidated cars to suckers before they go out of business. Already this sounds like a timeless piece of Americana, populated by cynical thieves who are looking to fuck each other over. And the film is not above killing off a kindly old man for a gag, lining up hot 70s style skanks to keep you riveted, and using a scary black man as a crude stereotype. As one character puts it, this is “competition at its finest.”

To sell their rusted finery, they dial back odometers, paint over taxicabs, and stage the killing of a dog to elicit empathy from a prospective buyer’s family. When Rudy introduces himself, his last name is, depending on the customers’ ethnicity, Rodriguez, O’Brien, or Washington Carver. Their competitor (the aforementioned evil brother) holds a family fun circus to attract customers, so Rudy steals them with topless disco dancers. When business flags, they preempt a presidential address to vandalize the other lot as part of an ad campaign: “Friends, we are here to blow the living shit out of high prices.” They blame it on Arab terrorists, naturally. Why the fuck are you reading this? Just watch it, and tell me that Kurt Russell in a shiny shirt open to the waist doesn’t make you, uh, happy to do so yourself.

The one blemish on the gem would be a third act redemption where Rudy attempts to regain his job, the attentions of the love interest, and save the car lot. Even this moment is an inspired bit of lunacy where he purchases 250 worthless cars from a Mexican stereotype (who perpetually has one hand on his unit) and enlists the aid of 250 student drivers in a high-speed caravan that in real life would rack up a body count worthy of Andrei Chikatilo. Endangering the lives of snotty high school students while performing some impressive car stunts is what made America great.

Throughout, you will be on your feet for this cheap-looking, utterly tasteless film that revels in its misanthropy and misogyny without a shred of irony or remorse. The gossamer-thin plot serves as no distraction from gratuitous breasts, and thank fuck for that. Cars destined to experience major engine failure moments after they leave the lot are adorned with “Russo for Senate” bumper stickers as a reminder of the unavoidable link between politics and salesmanship. The antagonist is a wealthy and corrupt used car lot owner who demands respect not for his business acumen, but for the large bribes he provides to the mayor and city council to strip his brother of his lot. In a most welcome gesture, the protagonist fights this with shameless theft, destruction of property, and concealment of a dead body until the time is right to incinerate that body in front of witnesses. It’s the slobs versus the assholes in an underrated classic, in which Kurt Russell has never been used to greater effect.