Used Cars Review

Used Cars Movie Review


For his sophomore effort, following the lively and delightful I Wanna Hold Your Hand, director Robert Zemeckis went a little darker. Used Cars has the same manic energy that defined his feature film debut, but it’s applied in a satire of American capitalism that’s at times as biting and uncomfortable as it is funny and entertaining.

The film stars a rarely better Kurt Russell as Rudy Russo, the most profitable and charismatic used car salesman at the New Deal lot in Mesa, Arizona. But being the most profitable salesman at New Deal is like being the most profitable ice salesman at the North Pole – there’s not a lot of business, and the lot’s sickly owner, Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), knows it.

Across the street, business is better at the lot owned by Luke’s brother, Roy L. Fuchs (also played by Warden), but he’s worried the government is going to come in and demolish his lot to make way for a new exit to the highway. Desperate to pay off the local state senator who can stop this from happening, he wants to take over New Deal and collect on his brother’s life insurance policy.

Rudy, meanwhile, wants to make something of his life and thinks he can win party support to run for state Senate himself. He just needs to sell enough cars in a few days to raise the bribe money, or convince Luke to back him. It seems like the latter option is all set to go until Roy hires a demolition driver to take Luke on a ride from hell, and he kicks the bucket not long after. Rudy knows his dreams (as well as his lot) are on the line if Roy finds out his brother is dead, so he concocts a scheme that involves Luke “taking a trip to Miami” and hiring strippers to lure potential customers to buy their used car from New Deal. It’s going swimmingly until Luke’s long lost daughter, Barbara (Deborah Harmon), shows up.

There is a lot about the film’s plot that is convoluted, but that’s part of its appeal. Rudy is presented as someone who could sell anyone on anything if given the opportunity, and he regularly is over the course of the movie. Convince someone that his brother is still alive? Check. Talk his way out of hijacking the airwaves during a presidential address to shoot up someone else’s car lot? Yep, he does that, too. To say Used Cars stretches credulity is a major understatement, but it does so with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

To pull something like this off, Zemeckis needs exactly the right kind of guy to play this larger-than-life part, and Russell is more than up to the task. He had been acting for a while up to this point, but Used Cars is his last credit before his truly star-making turn as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, and it feels like he’s somebody on the verge of greatness, which perhaps inadvertently lends some authenticity to the role itself. He’s a scoundrel, and while it might have been nice to see Zemeckis and his screenwriting partner, Bob Gale, explore the darker side of this character’s schemes, that’s not really something the director cares about. He’s more cut and dried than that – get in, get out, have fun, don’t ask questions.

The film’s other notable performance comes from Jack Warden insofar as he’s playing two very different twin brothers. Luke seems kind – almost too kind for the world he briefly inhabits – while Roy is even more of a scoundrel than Rudy. He might be right about some things, but the methods to which he goes to meet his ends make Rudy more relatable and rootable in comparison.

I liked I Wanna Hold Your Hand a little more in hindsight than I did while I was watching it because of how in-your-face its characters were, and I’d say the same thing about Used Cars. Part of me didn’t like or didn’t want to like either film, but they really did win me over before too long. I’d say I preferred his debut by just a hair to Used Cars, but it’s nice to see Zemeckis stretch himself a little and tackle darker themes (even if they aren’t as dark as they could have been). He’s two for two as a filmmaker, and we’re about to get into his golden age. Next up: Romancing the Stone.

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