Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Ron Howard, Nancy Morgan, Marion Ross
Extras: Commentary Track, Introduction, Featurette, Trailer
No, this has nothing to do with the popular video game series. Long before folks spent cold evenings camping outside electronics stores waiting for the latest PlayStation model, teenagers flocked to drive-in theaters to see low-budget double features for entertainment, especially those from acclaimed B-movie king Roger Corman. Many a fine filmmaker got their earliest opportunities under Corman's supervision, from Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola to James Cameron and Jonathan Demme. Another major talent on that list is Ron Howard, who in 1977 made his directorial debut with Corman's "Grand Theft Auto." At only 23, Howard also co-wrote the film and starred in it, and…well, "Citizen Kane" it ain't. In fact, there are few similarities between this early work and the films that he would become known for in the 1990s and beyond. This film clearly fits in more snugly with Corman's output, but it is significant nonetheless, and Buena Vista Home Entertainment has issued a new special edition as part of their recent Roger Corman series.
The setup is a classic romantic struggle. Blue-collar Sam Freeman (Ron Howard) and his wealthy girlfriend Paula Powers (Nancy Morgan) decide to get married, against the wishes of her overbearing father (Barry Cahill). When he absolutely forbids the nuptials, Paula takes the keys of his prized Rolls Royce and heads off to Vegas with Sam to elope. Desperate to get his car back, Mr. Powers hires a private detective to find them and return the stolen property. Meanwhile, Mrs. Powers informs the boy they wanted Paula to marry, a sniveling momma's boy named Collins Hedgeworth (Paul Linke), of Paula's action. He quickly decides to chase after her, stealing a used car after totaling his own. He also inexplicably calls a radio station to report the incident on the air, offering a $25,000 reward for anyone who can bring her back. When his mother (Marion Ross) hears about it, she also takes off after him in a stolen car, calling the same radio station and offering an equal sum of money for his safe return. Pretty soon, everyone and his father is racing down the highway after the love-struck kids, who quickly become a media sensation, in hopes of getting their hands on the cash reward.
In what is essentially a feature-length car chase, we are treated to an onslaught of sports cars, buses, pickup trucks, helicopters, and pretty much anything else with a motor sliding, diving, flipping and flying in one over-the-top action sequence after another. Howard wrote the screenplay with his father, Rance Howard, who has a small role as the private detective, and it is clear that they were not aiming for high-brow sensibilities. With the exceptions of Sam and Paula, the film is populated by the most manic lunatics this side of the Three Stooges, including Howard's "Happy Days" mom Marion Ross, in what is basically a cameo, and his real-life brother Clint Howard, in the first of many novelty appearances. Cult film director Paul Bartel also makes a brief appearance as a newlywed who is caught with his pants down, and Garry Marshall has a bizarre turn as an underworld boss. A couple of tender moments between the two leads provide precious opportunities for relief from the non-stop action, but this is top speed comedy at its least restrained, and if you're not willing to stay for the entire drive, you'd best not hop on for the ride in the first place.
As part of their new series of Roger Corman-produced and -directed films on DVD, Buena Vista Home Entertainment has released "Grand Theft Auto" in the hideously named "Tricked Out Edition." You'll have to pardon me for a moment, but I must briefly mention the packaging. I am normally not that concerned with cover art on DVD packages. After all, it's the disc itself that matters the most. However, it seems that Buena Vista is deliberately trying to attract customers who are only familiar with the same-named but completely unrelated video games with their new package, which features lettering that bears a striking resemblance to the game logo and the silhouette of a voluptuous woman in knee-high boots who never appears in the actual film. Not only is this a fairly blatant marketing scheme, but it also makes for a rather unattractive cover design that clashes with the goofy nature of the movie.
Anyway, the upside is that the transfer for this film looks surprisingly good. Presented in its original fullframe aspect ratio, the picture is remarkably sharp and bright, given its low-budget status. There is quite a lot of grain throughout as well as many scratches and speckles, but this is to be expected and in some ways enhances the experience of watching a cult classic. Colors are generally brightly saturated, occasionally a little washed out, and there is some chroma noise. Still, with natural skin tones, solid black levels, and fine contrast, this is much better than I had anticipated.
The audio is presented in a new Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, though it still shows signs of its age. Much of the sound is rather harsh, owing to the low quality of the original recording. Peter Ivers' music sounds just great, and while there is a great deal of ambience and sound effects, I'm not sure that a 5.1 track was needed. The surround is not utilized as much as it could have been, and the bulk of the audio is pushed to the front. It's still about as good as we can expect, considering the source. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
Ron Howard and producer Roger Corman sat down for a most enjoyable commentary track, recalling the wild days of production. It is clear that while neither one of them hails the film as a masterpiece, they look back on it with nostalgia and pride.
Corman also provides a brief, optional video introduction to the film. It's not very informative, but it is the only opportunity to see him on camera on this disc.
The 9-minute featurette "A Family Affair" contains interviews with Rance and Clint Howard on their involvement in the film. Rance delivers the most interesting observations, as he co-wrote the film and helped get it off the ground. This is followed by a theatrical trailer.
It is always fascinating to go back to a director's humble beginnings and see how they measure up. Ron Howard has certainly come a looong way since 1977. While most people are familiar with his early career as a child star, even his most ardent fans would probably be surprised by this seemingly inauspicious directorial debut. For those who enjoy endless auto crashes, "Grand Theft Auto" was one of the first movies to fully embrace the growing trend and should definitely be an entertaining choice. This is a perennial for fans of Roger Corman. Those expecting something along the lines of Howard's more recent, award-winning fare should best steer clear. Even the greatest filmmakers have to start somewhere. This is by no means a terrible movie, but I think we can all be thankful that Howard got this out of his system early on.