The story behind Grand Theft Auto is a minor b-movie legend. When Ron Howard signed on to star in Eat My Dust, he proposed the idea that he might get to direct a film for Roger Corman afterwards. Corman said he’d think about it, mainly to ensure Howard would sign on for Eat My Dust, but he took the offer a little more seriously when their first team effort was a big hit. Howard devised a story with his dad’s help that ensured he could both star and direct at the same time and Corman signed off.
The end result was one of the most entertaining flicks in the 1970’s car-chase cycle, a fast-paced romp that Howard admits was inspired by It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. He gets the action going immediately by having young adult lovebirds Paula Powers (Nancy Morgan) and Ron Freeman (Howard) run off to Vegas for elopement purposes when her wealthy aspiring-politico dad Bigby (Barry Cahill) says no. Bigby wants his daughter to marry wealthy Collins (Paul Linke) — and both men jump in their cars, determined to bring Paula back. When Collins takes off, his mom Vivian also joins in the chase to bring him back.
The complexity of the chase goes through the roof when disc jockey Curly Q. (Don Steele) starts reporting on the happenings. Collins calls in and offers a $25,000 for Nancy’s return. Not to be outdone, Marion calls in and offers $25,000 for the safe return of Collins. This inspires a bunch of kooks to join in on the chase, including dent-head mechanics Ace (Clint Howard) and Sparky (Pete Isacksen) as well as a money-grubbing preacher (Hoke Howell). Pretty soon, everyone from a car of low-riders to the Mafia are burning rubber — and Curly Q. takes to the skies in a copter to keep up his reports as the this crazed caravan closes in on Las Vegas.
Howard has been making event movies and Oscar-bait for so long that it is easy to forget the gift for screen comedy that he showed at the beginning of his directing career — and Grand Theft Auto shows this gift was in full force well before Night Shift or Splash. Howard clearly did his homework on the Corman production style, delivering a film that is colorful and pace-conscious. It delivers all the chases and gravity-defying crashes its story promises but skillfully uses Howard’s knack for comedy to keep the action fresh.
Howard uses two key weapons to achieve his goals. The first is obvious: a well-stocked cast of seasoned comedic players. Ron Howard delivers a likeable performance in his trademark Richie Cunningham “gee whiz” style but he also has a game partner in Morgan, who’s every bit as committed to her role. However, it’s the backing players that really add the fire: Linke — soon to be on CHiPs and in Motel Hell — is hilarious as the bug-eyed, arrogant ex-fiancée, Howell delivers the hypocritical preacher routine with plenty of Southern-fried gusto and Clint Howard and Isacksen do a great job of becoming human cartoons as the loud, rude grease-monkey duo. Steele is typically professional in his familiar disc jockey role — it’s probably his best showing in a New World film after Death Race 2000. It’s also worth noting that Ross has great fun taking a break from being “Mrs. C” to play a wealthy snob who gives a cop “the finger” before punching him in the balls.
The other, equally important weapon in Howard’s arsenal is the talented gang of New World veterans making up his crew. The film is beautifully shot by low budget perennial Gary Graver, with an assist from Jamie Anderson on the 2nd unit stuff, and they give the film the bright, slick look it needs to achieve its pop appeal. The snappy editing was handled by a pre–Piranha Joe Dante and Allan Arkush shot most of the car-crunching action (he did quite well and would perform the same task on Deathsport). Vic Rivers choreographs the automotive mayhem beautifully, with the stunt driving of a team led by Tim Chitwood putting it all over the top.
The final gloss is placed by the musical score of a non-New World-er, offbeat pop musician Peter Ivers: his synth-tinged soft rock approach is a fun addition that furthers the film’s distinctive 1970’s Californian style.
In short, Grand Theft Auto is a keeper for fans of Corman’s 1970’s productions. It might be a little light on sex and violence for Corman aficionados weaned on the likes of Death Race 2000 and Humanoids From The Deep but it has the same energetic spark that the best New World productions have.