“I’ll tell you something. This country is going to the dogs. You know, it used to be when you bought a politician, that son of a bitch stayed bought.”
Years ago, I was watching a DVD with the commentary on. The commentary was provided by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. While commenting on the movie I was watching, they talked about the enormous flop that had been their previous collaboration. Apparently, that collaboration, Used Cars, died in the ass so hard, the Bobs thought they would be run out of Hollywood. Luckily, a plucky young producer named Steven Spielberg gave them another chance, and they made Back to the Future. Ever since hearing that commentary on Back to the Future, I’ve been intrigued. What sort of movie was Used Cars? What had these two dudes made that was so terrible, they almost didn’t get to make one of the greatest movies of my childhood?
Kurt Russell is Rudy Russo, the kind of bad suit wearing, scam running, odometer turning back used car salesman who only exists in movies and sitcoms from the 80s. He works at a lot owned by the honest and friendly Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden). Across the road is a rival lot owned by Luke’s ruthless twin brother, Ron Fuchs (also Warden).
While Rudy is willing to literally lure customers from the competition with a $10 bill on the end for a fishing line, Luke wishes his staff would be a little more straight shooting in their sales techniques. But in the world of used car sales, nice guys finish last. And soon, Luke is dead of a heart attack, caused by his brother’s dastardly plans. You see, there’s a highway coming to town, and Ron has bribed the council to run it through Luke’s yard. Thus eliminating his competition, and giving his yard prime, high traffic real estate.
Discovering Luke dead, Rudy realises Ron is set to inherit the car lot, so with the help of fellow salesman Jeff (Gerrit Graham), and jive talking, narcoleptic mechanic Jim (Frank McCrae), he covers up the death and keeps the yard running as usual. Well, not quite as usual. Without Luke in the way, Rudy is free to be as dodgy as he likes, all in an effort to make enough money to run for the state senate, where he plans on living off graft and corruption. When Luke’s estranged daughter arrives, (Deborah Harmon as Barbara), Rudy and Ron both realise there’s a new heir to the lot and their various schemes unravel.
Here’s the thing with Used Cars. It’s not great. But it’s not terrible either. There are more than a few good gags and Kurt Russell is especially funny in the main role. The story is paper thin, and the motivations that drive every character decision and plot points seem like first draft place holders that were tossed off in the moment, then no one remembered to go back and punch them up. But this is a swear filled, car crash heavy comedy from 1980, all of that dodginess was kind of par for the course back then.
The quality that is evident in Used Cars however is the work of Robert Zemeckis. He takes this paper thin fluff and directs the shit out of it. He makes these low stakes seem important, he makes the perplexing, plot driving decisions of the characters seem almost human. And he makes what should have been an absolutely terrible movie, kind of OK.