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Grand Theft Auto - Tricked Out Edition
cast: Ron Howard, Nancy Morgan, Marion Ross, Rance Howard

director: Ron Howard

84 minutes (PG) 1977
Buena Vista NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Noell Wolfgram Evans
Some of the best Little Rascals shorts had Spanky and Alfalfa rounding up their friends to "put on a show." A backyard or some barn-like structure would be confiscated and the group would put on revues or theatre plays that were well beyond their means, yet entertaining. This is the type of feeling one gets when watching 1977's Grand Theft Auto, which has been newly released on DVD.

It's a solidly constructed genre movie that feels like it could offer so much more, if only someone with some stronger skills were behind it. (And I say that knowing that it was not intended to be the great American classic, but even exploitation genre films can rise above.) Grand Theft Auto is a chase film that feels more congenial then tense, a comedy that feels more ha-ha then manic. It's also a movie filled with friends and relatives (always something that can be argued that both helps and hurts). The movie's director is Ron Howard (who also wrote the screenplay and stars, and most likely made lunch for the crew at some point - nice guy that he seems to be). Howard's brother, Clint, and father, Rance, also have parts in the film (his father also helped with the screenplay). There is also an appearance from Marion Ross (one of Howard's Happy Days' co-stars). And one has the feeling from the pacing and tone that many of the crew and supporting players had spent considerable time in the trenches together before. All of this together, coupled with the fact that it was Ron Howard's first time behind the camera, gives Grand Theft Auto a very middle-of-the-road feeling and spirit when this is a movie that should be in the fast lane.

Grand Theft Auto is essentially a drive-in exploitation movie that is one part Romeo And Juliet/ one part Cannonball Run/ one part the last 20 minutes of The Blues Brothers. The plot (for what it's worth) tells the story of Sam Freeman (Ron Howard) and Paula Powers (Nancy Morgan). As is often the case, the two are in love but Paula has been 'promised' by her powerful father to someone else. The lovers decide to elope and head (in a stolen car of course) from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. And thus the chase ensues...

This is not a movie where you go for a plot though, this is where you go to see stuff get smashed and, with this, the film delivers. Most of the film follows along this exchange of dialogue between Paula and Sam:

"They blocked all of the exits."
"We'll make a new one."

While we do see things explode, implode and get destroyed overall, we also see many, many chases, crashes and smashes. Of course there is also the requisite sexual innuendo, which is still a little hard to take given that Howard still has that Ritchie Cunningham look.

What could have been a throwaway 1970s picture though is made interesting because of its backstory. At this point in his career, Ron Howard was looking to make the move from in front of the camera to behind it; only he was having no luck. That is until he met up with Roger Corman. Legendary grade-C producer Corman made a career out of low (and no) budget movies and he knew a deal when he saw it. And a deal was exactly what Howard offered him. Howard offered to star in one of Corman's movies if, in return, he would let him direct another one. And as a clincher, Howard offered to take no fee as a director for the experience. (A situation that can only be seen as the best internship ever.)

The film holds up as a time capsule type of piece but it's missing any extra zing, the chases can be exciting but they're not edge-of-your-seat, and the comedy is missing that over-the-top-ness that would have helped propel this film from curious career footnote to midnight cult classic. And perhaps that can all be pinned on Howard. The man spent nearly his entire life in front of the camera making 'safe' television. It only makes sense that he would start his directorial career making safe films too, but a safe crash and smash movie? For certain minded people Grand Theft Auto might be an amazing discovery of a film. For others it's nothing more than a curious footnote into a populist director's career.

The one thing that still baffles me is what's supposed to be 'tricked out' about this DVD release. The only extras are an introduction by Corman, and a commentary track by Corman and an ever-chatty Howard. There is also a short feature that doesn't reveal much. Note - this film shares nothing but a title with a popular videogame series.

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