In the 1970’s there was an auto race called the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. It was a race from New York to LA and it served as the inspiration for several movies. There was “The Gumball Rally,” “Cannonball,” and, most famously, “The Cannonball Run” and it’s sequels. Today’s film is kind of like the Cannonball Run, that is, if it were about off-road racing and took place in the Philippines. It’s 1977’s “Checkered Flag or Crash.”
This time around the race is called the Manilla 1000, organized by smooth-talking promoter Bo Cochran (Larry Hagman). This race will be taking a wide variety of vehicles on an off-road race through the rugged terrain of the country. You’ve got dune buggies, motorcycles, even a hippie bus all out to win the big prize. Meanwhile, Cochran is working every angle to get publicity and TV coverage for his event. This includes arranging for one of the best drivers, Walkaway Madden (Joe Don Baker) to get sponsorship from a major newspaper. In return, a reporter, C.C. Wainwright (Susan Sarandon), gets to ride with Walkaway during the race. Needless to say, this does not thrill the racer.
As the race gets going, we get small glimpses of some of the other participants. One of them is Walkaway’s former partner, Doc (Alan Vint). We also meet several other characters, such as a mystery motorcycle rider in black (Daina House) and a strange little man driving a barely roadworthy bus.
From here, the great majority of the film is devoted to race footage. Since it’s an off-road race, the footage is not remotely smooth. It’s bouncy, jiggly…almost nauseating at times. Imagine if “The Bourne Identity” and “The Blair Witch Project” had a baby that was a motor-head…you’d have this movie.
Along the route, Walkaway tries to ditch C.C. at various moments. He even succeeds at one point when he stops to fix a problem with his car and she gets out to take pictures. Since she’s not moving fast enough, he takes off without her. She ends up getting picked up by Cochran’s helicopter and actually beating Walkaway to that day’s checkpoint. Despite being helpful, things are not going well for Cochran, though. Flooding threatens to shut down the race, that is, until he convinces the drivers to take a more dangerous route for the possibility of winning more money…which he doesn’t actually have.
Viewers who are into cars and bikes and such will probably love this film. However, as I said before, it is hard to watch. So much of it is filmed from off-road vehicles…so if you’re prone to motion sickness, this ain’t the movie for you. But the film does have two strong leads. Much of the film focuses on Baker and Sarandon’s characters, and they both do a good job with their roles. It’s certainly surprising to see Sarandon in this sort of film. Of course, this was very early in her career, coming just a year after she was in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Where the film suffers is that the supporting characters are so under-developed. There are a few attempts…such as a brief romance between one of the drivers and the mysterious woman in black, and a storyline about two of the driver’s teaming up when one is injured and the other’s bike breaks down. But on a whole, the audiences never even imagines that anyone but Walkaway will win the race since there is so little focus on any of the other characters. As dumb as the Canonball Run films are, at least they have a large cast of goofy characters trying to beat each other.
Though there are a few fun action moments, “Checkered Flag or Crash” is probably a film best suited for gear-heads. Just plan on having some Dramamime on hand.