Rob’s Car Movie Review: Catch Me If You Can (1989)

In many previous editions of this column, I’ve talked about the fact that the decade of the 1970s was, undisputedly, the golden era of car movies.

It was a time when American youth – the so-called “Me Generation” – desired adventure, freedom, and experience above all else. Hollywood responded by churning out some of the most memorable road and car movies that spoke to those sentiments. I’m referring, of course, to films like American Graffiti, Vanishing Point, Smokey and the Banditand Two-Lane Blacktop.

Catch Me if You Can’s theatrical one-sheet poster. (Image courtesy of MCA.)

While the genre managed to survive into the 80s, the majority of car movies of that era lacked the impact of the films that preceded them, and seemed to disappear into oblivion for various reasons. For every Cannonball Run or Hollywood Knights that hit the screen, there were dozens of car films that went in and out of the theaters on a weekend, or went straight to video.

Though commercially unsuccessful, a number of these movies are worthy of review here if for no other reason that they sport some terrific cars taking part in top-notch automotive action.

For this month’s installment of Rob’s Car Movie Review, I thought we would go back in time to the age of big hair and questionable fashions, and have a look at a forgotten car flick of the 1980s that I have never seen. The movie? 1989’s Catch Me if You Can.

Although it may seem obvious, I should say right off the bat that this isn’t the Catch Me if You Can with Leonardo DiCaprio that you’re familiar with. That film, directed by Steven Spielberg, hit the screen some thirteen years later.

This Catch Me if You Can was produced and theatrically distributed by Management Company Entertainment Group, and was written and directed by first-timer, Stephen Sommers. Proof of TE Lawrence’s aphorism in Lawrence of Arabia that “big things have small beginnings,” Sommers would go on to become a major Hollywood filmmaker, directing such tentpole films as The Jungle Book, The Mummy (1999), Van Helsingand GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

The movie featured a largely unknown cast, with Matt Latanzi in the lead as Dylan Malone, Loryn Locklin as Melissa Hanson, Grant Heslov as Nevil, and noted actors Geoffrey Lewis and M. Emmet Walsh as Mr. Johnson and Johnny Phatmun respectively.

Lead actors Matt Lattanzi and Loryn Locklin. (Photo courtesy of Management Company Entertainment Group.)

The plot of the movie concerns Dylan and Melissa, two diametrically opposed types of students who attend Cathedral High School together.

Dylan, a highly intelligent but rebellious and largely bored high school student, likes to drag race for money, often instead of attending classes. Melissa, class president and all-around goody two-shoes, is consumed by her studies and setting up bake sales and other similar events to raise money to save the school from impending closure.

With the student body’ largely apathetic to Melissas cause, Dylan appeals to her that he can help save the school if she lends him $3000 of the money she raised to drag race against his main foe. Dylan loses, giving Melissa no choice but to loan him more to win the school’s money back.

To their relief, Dylan goes on a winning streak, amassing huge amounts of money for the school and a cut for himself. Meanwhile, working closely together creates romantic feelings between the two. Their burgeoning relationship, and their efforts to keep Cathedral open reach a breaking point though, when Dylan and Melissa run afoul of the area’s biggest gambler, Jonny Phatmun, who has grown tired of losing money he has bet on all of Dylan’s opponents.

Veteran character actor M Emmett Walsh as Johnny Phatmun. (Photo courtesy of Management Company Entertainment Group.)

Dylan and Melissa are forced into a wager by Phatmun: Dylan must race against The Widowmaker, one of the best street racers in the area, for $100,000 (the amount Phatmun has lost betting against Dylan) and the ability to stakehorse Dylan in future races. The Widowmaker races dirty, forcing Dylan into an accident and wins the contest, giving Phatmun all the school’s money and control of Dylan’s racing.

Meanwhile, hearing that the students had raised $100,000, the school board decides to keep Cathedral open, forcing Melissa to admit to the entire school that the money is gone.
Taking matters into his own hands, Dylan demands a rematch from Phatmun, offering his own cut from all his wins for the chance. Phatmun takes Dylan up on the bet and sets the terms of the race: Dylan will drive by himself on a set course against a record time set thirty years ago by Fast Freddie, the town’s legendary street racer.
If Dylan wins, he takes back the $100k plus another $100,000, but if he loses, he must race for Phatmun for free in perpetuity.

Geoffrey Lewis as Principal Johnson. (Photo courtesy of Management Company Entertainment Group.)

Just before the big event, Phatmun has his henchmen total Dylan’s car, leaving Dylan’s ability to win in doubt. Begrudgingly approving of Dylan and Melissa’s efforts to save Cathedral, the Principal, Mr. Johnson, reveals himself to be none other than the fabled Fast Freddie, and offers the car he made the run in thirty years ago to Dylan.

The feat is near impossible, but with the student body and faculty now viewing Dylan as a folk hero and helping him with his plan to win, Dylan must muster everything he has to secure the future of Cathedral High.

If that sounds like a remarkably engaging plot for a car movie, you’d be right. The story is fast paced, with plenty of well-conceived cause-and-effect loops, and stakes that are ratcheted up at every turn (pardon the pun).

The problem with Catch Me if You can arises from the screen execution of the script. Yes, it’s full of the typical wooden acting, unfunny quips, and continuity errors that commonly litter low-budget films of this ilk, but what really harms the movie is the director’s choice of tone.

Had Sommers struck a slightly edgy note with the tenor of the film, CMIYC might have had a shot at being a classic of the dystopian high school genre à la Heathers or Christine. Instead, he went for high camp. Big mistake.

Campy, cliched characters don’t help the film. (Photo courtesy of Management Company Entertainment Group.)

Choosing this tone had the effect of making the film more than a tad insipid, with sappy, saccharine-sweet, high school shenanigans and clichéd, carboard cutout villains who never resort to violence and say things like “Darn it! I’ll get you yet!” Yeah, it’s that sort of campiness, and at times it makes you win. Think of Grease set in the 1980s without the musical numbers and you’ve got it.

Having said that, it’s not an unwatchable film, thanks to the aforementioned strong story. What really saves it though are two things: the cars and the automotive action. Thankfully, in these respects, the movie is superlative.

The prime cars in the film are the two that Dylan uses while racing.

Dylan’s ’68 Chevy Chevelle Malibu coupe. (Photo courtesy of Management Company Entertainment Group.)

Dylan’s personal car is a 1968 Chevy Chevelle Malibu two-door sport coupe. Dressed in black with a black vinyl top and a black interior, the car looks rather stock save for a set of mag wheels and a roll cage. We never get to see under the hood, but judging by the live sound recordings during the racing sequences, I’d guess the car is packing a Turbo-Fire 327ci V8. We do see Dylan shifting what appears to be a Muncie four-speed a few times though.

Fast Freddie’s 1957 Chevy Two-Ten coupe. (Photo courtesy of Management Company Entertainment Group.)

Fast Freddie/Principal Johnson’s car that Dylan uses in the time attack race at the end is a dyed-in-the-wool American classic – a 1957 Chevy Two-Ten two-door coupe.

Initially wearing bright red paint, it is revealed to have a royal blue coat with a flame-job underneath this half-way through the climactic race, when some of the Cathedral students power-wash the red off to allow Dylan to evade police identification. Again, we don’t get a good look under the hood, but in dialogue, it is said the car has a “427ci big-block, with a cam, headers, and an elephant carb.”

The movie is littered with awesome rides, including this ’69 RS/SS 396 Camaro ragtop. (Photo courtesy of Management Company Entertainment Group.)

Other choice cars in the film include a stunning 1969 Camaro RS/SS 396 convertible, a 1969 Shelby Mustang GT500, The Widowmaker’s 1979 Camaro, Phatmun’s 1960 Cadillac Sedan DeVille, a canary yellow 1971 Chevrolet C-Series pickup, a 1973 Plymouth Duster, a 1971 Pontiac GTO and a 1967 suicide Lincoln Continental.

There are terrific racing sequences throughout the film. (Photo courtesy of Management Company Entertainment Group.)

While Catch Me if You Can is quite a flawed film, it is enjoyable enough, and the racing sequences are very well crafted. While it won’t feature at the top of anyone’s list of favorite car movies, I’ve seen far worse, and at times, I quite liked it. I give the movie six out of ten pistons.