Five years before Marty McFly learned about the power of love, Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) was Robert Zemeckis’ first depiction of a central male character becoming overwhelmed by consumerist American culture. But in the case of Used Cars, whatever comforts you found in Marty’s fulfilling adventure are gone for a scathing, satirical look at the power of the grift. Zemeckis’ sophomore feature has received a stellar 2160p presentation aided by Dolby Vision HDR and sourced from a 4K restoration of the original camera negative. Although no new special features have been included, this two-disc (4K and BD) release comes with everything from Shout Factory’s 2019 Blu-ray edition. This new 4K Blu-ray package comes Recommended!
If you couldn’t tell from the above introduction, I’m already a very big fan of the tireless manic energy that Used Cars throws at you for the majority of its runtime. Robert Zemeckis’ narrative debut, the charming and similarly manic I Wanna Hold Your Hand, had just come out two years prior and had been championed by Steven Spielberg. With that film began Zemeckis’ thirst to recreate hysteria and lace it all with self-effacing humor. In I Wanna Hold Your Hand, it’s those damn Beatles causing the hysteria. And in Used Cars, it’s the moral turpitude of a used car salesman (and aspiring politician) sending a whole town into hysteria.
Used Cars was produced during that Golden Age of collaborations between Zemeckis and Spielberg, yet it’s got the kind of ramshackle spirit you’d find in a Roger Corman picture of that era. This could be chalked up to a lower budget, but Zemeckis’ tireless visual creativity sustains when the story infrequently dips into histrionics. Histrionics, mind you, that Zemeckis brings a uniquely embittered taste to. It comes through in the constant barrage of one-liners and reminders that no matter how low these characters morally sink, they sure could go lower. This is one of the reasons the film wasn’t as embraced upon release, with a two-star Roger Ebert review stating: “And they (Zemeckis and Gale) seem to share the notion that if something is big enough and expensive enough, it will also be funny enough.”
Ebert has a fair point, in that the Looney Tunes-styled hijinks of Used Cars can sometimes be so bold and big that it can come off as needlessly brash, yet to this writer that’s the film’s greatest strength. If we liken Used Cars to another manic slice of Americana, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, then the scope of what Zemeckis achieved comes closer into focus; Americans are really fucking terrifying, but doubly so when they’re destroying everything with mechanical extensions of their angry IDs.
Rudy Russo (Russell) is a young, handsome and really sleazy used car salesman in Mesa, Arizona that works at New Deal Used Cars, owned by Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden). Fuchs’ evil brother Roy (also played by Warden) is fixin’ on trying to kill his brother to collect the life insurance money, which would give him the capital to prevent a freeway from being built on his used car lot. To kill Luke, Roy hires his mechanic (and demolition driver) Mickey (Michael Talbott) to pick up Luke and drive recklessly until Luke’s weak heart gives out. The scene is exactly like a Looney Tunes cartoon, culminating in one of those big dust cloud-like finales we usually see in the animated series. Moments like these show off Zemeckis’ visual prowess and if you’re feeling as embittered as the movie does, it’s easy to get swept up in the euphoria.
The film is chock full of visual gags and jokes at the expense of stereotypical American characters. So many that it feels increasingly relevant to today’s whacked-out public showings of greed. If you’ve never seen it before, you owe it to yourself to do so.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Turn the key and high-tail it off the lot with Used Cars’ two-disc (BD100 for the 4K disc and BD50 for the Blu-ray) release that comes housed in a standard black amaray case with artwork previously used on the 2019 Blu-ray release of the film from Shout. Both the 4K and Blu-ray disc boot up to standard menu screens with music playing on a loop. The options in the menu are to play the film, select scenes, choose audio options, turn on subtitles and explore bonus features.
“Yes sir, we blew the shit out of that over-priced motherfucker just the way we blow the shit out of all high prices down here at New Deal Used Cars.” And boy, does this new 2160p transfer blow the shit out of previous presentations of the film at home. Comparing this new 4K presentation to the 2014 Blu-ray release from Twilight Time immediately reveals what a huge step up this new release is. From the opening title cards, which are thick with grain due to the effects process, you can tell how much detail hadn’t been revealed in previous presentations. This isn’t the same transfer previously used on Shout’s 2019 Blu-ray release luckily, which still looks mighty soft like the Twilight Time release.
For anyone concerned about how Dolby Vision HDR and 2160p resolution might pull too much visual detail from the source, I’ve got some great news. Flesh tones are very true here, which was a primary concern of mine. Although the film has that somewhat-rosy look that’s so prevalent in Zemeckis’ early career, primaries are precisely bold enough and awash with natural film grain. Grain levels vary a bit depending on the sequence, with interiors having the finest layer, though the sturdy HEVC encode handles it all capably. The power of Dolby Vision HDR can really be seen here throughout, adding a breadth of finer colors across the film. You can most see it in the way normal house paint looks on the side of a beat-up car; much better defined and pointedly flat. Overall, this is a really pleasing presentation that is truly the best the film has ever looked.
Shout has carried over the same two audio tracks from their 2019 Blu-ray release of the film, although it’s worth noting that both tracks are rather good. The DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track does a better job at balancing the dialogue, but the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track gets extra points for being more expressive during the action sequences. Similar to Zemeckis’ first film, Used Cars is a sonic attack of noise from both humans and machines, but dialogue is never lost in the shuffle. Kind of like a Looney Tunes cartoon, the sound effects pack a punch and sound terrific in both tracks.
As mentioned previously, no new special features have been added on the occasion of this new 4K Blu-ray release, although the archival featurettes offered are worthwhile. Two interviews with producer/writer Bob Gale can be found here, with one dedicated to the talking about the inception of the film and Spielberg’s involvement, and the other interview focusing on how Zemeckis’ savvy technical prowess was a perfect match for the clunky, garish world of used car salesmen.
“Rudy, what the fuck is this? Rudy, this is a red car. Holy shit! A red chariot to take my ass straight to hell!” Propulsive, bawdy one-liners like this can be found in Robert Zemeckis’ underrated 1980 pitch-black comedy Used Cars. Shout Factory has upgraded their 2019 Blu-ray release to 4K Ultra HD with a stellar 2160p transfer that stands as the best presentation of the film at home. For fans of the film, you’ll find this release to be an easy purchase. And for the uninitiated, this release comes Recommended!