Hot Rod at 10: looking back at an underappreciated film

2007s' Hot Rod arrives at its tenth birthday - and there's plenty here to celebrate...

Stuntman extraordinaire Rod Kimble is about to face the challenge of his life. If he can jump fifteen buses on his motorbike – that’s one more than Evel Knievel; you can check, online – and raise the $50,000 required for his stepdad Frank’s life-saving surgery, he’ll be acclaimed as a hero. Far more importantly, he’ll also be able to kick Frank’s ass. Rod’s been mocked and bullied by his stepdad for a long time. This is his chance to prove himself as a man, gain Frank’s respect, and win the heart of his next-door neighbour, Denise. There’s only one problem: Rod’s never actually managed to perform a stunt successfully. Ancestors, protect him…

Since its release in 2007, Hot Rod’s gradually attained the well-deserved cult classic status that was denied it back then. It’s difficult for those of us who love this brilliant, bonkers film to fathom why it was so poorly received at the time. Scripted by Pam Brady (Team America: World Police) and originally intended for Will Ferrell, Hot Rod ended up in the hands of The Lonely Island, who’d been making a name for themselves with their ground-breaking Digital Shorts on Saturday Night Live. With Akiva Schaffer directing, Andy Samberg cast in the lead role, and Jorma Taccone as Rod’s half-brother Kevin, the trio set about rewriting the script to reflect their own inimitable style. The result was a comedy like no other.

Fantastic though its entire cast may be, Hot Rod is Andy Samberg’s triumph. It’s impossible to imagine Ferrell – or anyone else, for that matter – capturing the blend of manic energy and total commitment to the film’s magnificently relentless stupidity that Samberg brings to the role. Rod is a loveable, clueless overgrown kid whose nearest spiritual relative has to be Navin Johnson in Steve Martin’s The Jerk. As that comparison suggests, it’s a performance that should feature in any comedy fan’s top-ten list.

Samberg’s given sterling support by a top-notch cast including the incomparable Ian McShane as Frank, Isla Fisher as Rod’s smart and capable love interest Denise, Chris Parnell as demented AM radio host Barry Pasternack, and the combined comic forces of Bill Hader and Danny McBride in the roles of Dave and Rico, members of Rod’s devoted crew. Samberg and Taccone’s off-screen friendship allows them to play brothers with a plausible mixture of genuine affection and amusingly vicious resentment. Watch out, too, for long-time Lonely Island collaborator Chester Tam as Rod’s scene-stealing superfan, Richardson. Special mention must go to Sissy Spacek as Rod’s mum Marie; her decision to play the role completely straight only enhances the film’s ridiculousness.

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Trying to pick out favourite scenes from Hot Rod is difficult, to say the least. The entire film’s composed of one moment of inspired lunacy after another, with multiple viewings required to spot every hilarious touch. That said, there are obvious standouts. Rod’s Footloose-inspired punchdance through the woods as he works out his anger issues, culminating in a seemingly endless fall down a mountain, elevates the film to classic status all on its own. An impromptu feel-good parade through his hometown, to the tune of John Farnham’s stirring hit You’re The Voice, starts out funny and becomes hysterical when it suddenly turns into an apocalyptic riot that our heroes barely escape. Will Arnett, meanwhile, doesn’t have a huge amount of screentime as Denise’s diabolical boyfriend, Jonathan, but his final appearance is a meme-worthy stroke of genius too good to spoil here. Then, of course, there’s the innocuous phrase “cool beans”, which sends Rod and Kevin spiralling into what can only be described as a Dadaist interlude almost as divisive as Duchamp’s urinal. Probably not the ideal scene to win over newcomers, unless they’re Reeves and Mortimer fans, that is.

Hot Rod’s music is a high point, as you’d expect from a Lonely Island film. Most of Europe’s 1986 LP, The Final Countdown, is in there somewhere and, along with other soft-rock anthems by the likes of Cutting Crew and Moving Pictures, couldn’t have been better chosen. Josh Homme and Queens of the Stone Age even turn up – disguised as glam rock band Gown – to accompany Rod’s big jump with an original song, Head Honcho, that’s every bit as bombastic as you’d hope. Trevor Rabin (of Yes fame) provides a fabulous synth soundtrack that fits in perfectly with the film’s mid-‘80s references.

The period atmosphere in Hot Rod is spot on, with numerous nods to that decade’s wonderfully overblown films (Footloose, of course, but also RAD, The Karate Kid, Gymkata and Road House). So much so, in fact, that it’s easy to forget it’s actually set in 2007. When the present day does occasionally intrude, it only highlights Rod’s isolation in the fantasy world he’s built around his late father’s supposed career as a stuntman, which brings a genuine pathos to his attempts to defeat Frank. Rod’s frequent rages and inability to resist his terrifying stepdad’s taunts are played for laughs, but Samberg makes him sympathetic enough to ensure that we’re still rooting for him all the way.

If you enjoyed The Lonely Island’s recent second film, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, it’s high time you caught up with the Dudes’ first big-screen outing. If, on the other hand, you already know and love Hot Rod, this is just the excuse you don’t need to watch it again. So bring out the bubble wrap, glue on your fake moustaches, and get ready. Let’s party.