Susan Sarandon, Larry Hagman, and Joe Don Baker Burn Rubber in Manila
DIRECTED BY ALAN GIBSON/1977
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: DECEMBER 7, 2021/CODE RED (VIA KINO LORBER)
You may be wondering what the first off-road racing movie was. We can’t answer that, but we can inform you that a little something called Checkered Flag or Crash laid claim to that honor. It’s right there on the poster, so who are we to question it?
The place is Manila. The race is the first-ever Manila 1000- an event that’s exactly what it sounds like: a 1000-mile tear across the rough open roads of an unsuspecting Manila. Unscrupulous first-time race promoter Bo Cochran’s (Larry Hagman in a dry run for J.R. Ewing) offer of major cash to the winner of this ill-conceived high-speed dust kicker-upper attracts all manner of drivers in all manner of vehicles. We’ve got motorbikes, Volkswagens, Jeeps, and even a large, decorated Mexican Fiesta on wheels. We’ve even got real-life IndyCar racing legend Parnelli Jones, stiff as board, playing himself as a commentator in a helicopter!
Just how ill-conceived is this three-day death ripper? So much so that when a major natural disaster sneaks up on Manila during the event (verified via grainy stock footage of rows and rows of underwater hovels), Cochran’s entirely selfish response to his firsthand look at the damage is how this is gonna screw up his big race. It’s evident from the start that he’s got no medical help in place for the inevitable (heck, titular) crashes. What he does have is a ton of borrowed money on the line. This thing goes forward!- Come hell or, well, high water.
What the film may lack in base human empathy it makes up for in slo-mo footage of vehicles tearing around. In fact, while the movie clocks into its own finish line at a robust ninety-five minutes, roughly forty percent of that (guesstimated) is slow-motion footage. It also makes up for it in wasted acting talent. This is probably burying lead on this film the way the film buries the needle over and over, but Checkered Flag or Crash stars not only Hagman, but Joe Don Baker as the central racer (“I’m a wrecker!”, he says), and, in an early role for her, Susan Sarandon (the trailer’s v.o. calls her “Sarahn-din”) as a reporter embedded in Baker’s dune buggy.
These actors do just fine with the material they’ve been given, which is no material whatsoever. Baker’s whole character is that he’s hyper-focused on winning (spoiler alert: that doesn’t change) and he’s obsessed with the likelihood of Sarandon puking in his vehicle. The fact that he ditches her in the middle of nowhere- twice!- is supposed to do nothing to stop us from rooting for him. Do we root for him? Meh. The driver of the decorated fiesta on wheels is more sympathetic in his far more limited screen time.
For that matter, so is the black leather-clad mystery cyclist, who turns out to be January 1976 Playboy Playmate of the Month, Daina House. While her “story” isn’t exactly most empowering (tough loner biker gal turns all lovey-dovey the moment some suave bloke puts flowers on her bike), and she has the only “love scene” in the movie (a romantic kiss with said bloke), don’t assume anything more based on House’s previous credentials. This PG-rated movie has no time for anything other than MORE RACING!!!
Code Red’s Blu-ray release of Checkered Flag or Crash clears the finish line in better shape than most of the featured vehicles. Visual wear and tear and fading, while present in this obvious drive-in programmer, are quite minimal on this new 2K restoration. No real extras to speak of aside from the trailer and a few other trailers, but somehow, for this revved-up curio, that’s fine. One strongly suspects that the making of this movie was as seat-of-the-pants as the race it depicts, although the cinematography of Alan Hume (A View to a Kill; Return of the Jedi) is just enough to make one second-guess that.
What really matters is that the thoroughly 1970s redneck-y title song (sung with unwarranted gusto by Harlan Sanders) comes through loud and clear each of the many times it’s played, including the closing freeze-frame:
Checkered Flag or Crash!
There ain’t no in-between
Checkered Flag or Crash
So do me right, ya damn machine!