It’s the summer of 1977, and Star Wars changes cinema forever; at the same time, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures scored a sizable hit with Grand Theft Auto, a carmageddon, car-quake on an off-the Richter scale. ‘See the world’s most expensive cars destroyed!’ was the tagline, a very specific promise; back in the day, the gleeful destructiveness of such films was seen as a social problem. The GTA game, no relation to this, gave couch potatoes the chance to create the mayhem for themselves; Ron Howard’s film is more about being pursued that causing chaos, although there’s plenty of automobile destruction to attract the eye.
Howard directed and starred in this entry in a cycle that ran via Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Eat My Dust, Gone in 60 Seconds and Moving Violation; the later Smokey and the Bandit saw the counter-culture break into the mainstream. The scenario is similar to Bandit’s subplot; Howard plays Sam Freeman, who steals Paula Powers (Nancy Morgan) away from her rich LA parents to get married in Vegas. In fact, Powers is actually the instigator of the scheme, stealing her dad’s precious Rolls Royce with Freeman in the passenger seat; Powers has more agency than you’d expect for the mid 70’s.
Co-writing with his brother Vance, Howard pulls off quite a feat here; while the backgrounds are anonymous, and the most romantic scene happens in a scrapyard, Howard shows his skill by keeping the romance front and centre. The sub-plots are burlesque-level comedy, with gangs of gangsters, idiot sidekicks and the usual elements all well marshalled. In case we miss any nuances, there’s an on-going commentary provides by Don Steele as Curly Q Brown, who interacts with all the protagonists via his radio broadcast, and keeps up the narrative by pursuing them by car and helicopter; the budget for his radio show must be huge.
Grand Theft Auto climaxes with a literal demolition derby which draws all the various strands together; it’s a fairly lightly administrated competition in which Powers and Freeman’s Rolls Royce can just drive through a gap in the fencing and participate in the competition. Health and safety isn’t an issue in this story, or in this film, in which many vehicles are destroyed with enthusiasm. Grand Theft Auto isn’t a classic, but it’s a lively, energetic B-movie that rarely lapses into the sexism and racism that was often box-office at the time. And for Howard, and his family, it was a precursor of better things to come; this GTA is a sunny, silly bit of wish-fulfilment, and a must-see for petrol-heads of all ages.