The early '70s was the era of the existential car-chase movie, with laconic iconoclasts zipping through deserts and cities, usually one step ahead of The Man. But by the mid-'70s, Hollywood had figured out that while audiences liked modern movies' anti-authoritarianism and rampant vulgarity, they could do without the angst. So a genre that once produced Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point evolved into the home of The Gumball Rally and Corvette Summer, with more crashes and less actual pain.
A few strains of the "keep moving or die" ethos of the era's landmark post-hippie drive-in fodder survive in The Gumball Rally, a seminal 1976 cross-country race movie from stuntman-turned-director Charles Bail. By and large, Bail reverts to the forced eccentricity and madcap cast of '60s comedies like It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which The Gumball Rally apes with its light jazz-pop score and high-concept story of playboys, mobsters, housewives, and grease monkeys competing for honor and money in an illegal race. But there's a curious roguishness to Peter Fonda look-alike Michael Sarrazin, who organizes his auto club into teams and gives them license to elude the fuzz, using fake police decals, sexual come-ons, and exploding cartons of milk if necessary. Bail doesn't have much facility with actors or dialogue, but he lovingly photographs the cars, which race through empty New York streets at dawn and Los Angeles traffic at rush hour. And he faithfully records the counterculture's dimming flame. About the worst thing any of these characters say about America is that it's boring.
Corvette Summer is a smaller film, with a just-post-Star Wars Mark Hamill playing an L.A. high-school gearhead who restores a candy-apple-red Corvette Stingray in his auto-shop class, then embarks on a Las Vegas odyssey when the car gets stolen. He hooks up with Annie Potts, on her way to Nevada to become a professional hooker after her rapid rise through the amateur ranks. Writer-director Matthew Robbins seems only halfheartedly committed to the story's high-school opening, but he's fully involved once Hamill gets to Vegas and starts rendezvousing with other dreamers. It's possible to make a case for Hamill's questthe search for a flashy car he doesn't even ownas symbolic of the corrupted ideals of the Carter years. But Corvette Summer was originally billed as "a fiberglass romance," and that about sums up its thematic ambitions. Robbins cares about the automobiles much more than the drivers. From the jargon-filled car talk to the repeated shots of tricked-out machines, Corvette Summer is about hot wheels, not what they mean.