Theatrical release poster
The main plot revolves around six teams of people who are given the task of racing 563 miles from a Las Vegas casino to a Silver City, New Mexico train station, where a storage locker contains a duffel bag filled with two million dollars. The first team to reach the locker wins and gets to keep the money. The film has a plot similar to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Scavenger Hunt.
Donald Sinclair (John Cleese), the eccentric owner of The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, devises a new game to entertain the high rollers who visit his hotel. Six special tokens are placed in the casino's slot machines, and the winners are gathered together and told that $2 million in cash is hidden in a duffel bag in a train station locker in Silver City, New Mexico, 400 miles southeast of Las Vegas. Each team is given a key to the locker and told to race across the desert to the train station and claim the money. Unbeknownst to the competitors, Sinclair's wealthy patrons are placing bets on who will win the race.
Among the racers are scheming siblings Duane and Blaine Cody, businesswoman Merrill Jennings and her estranged mother Vera, disgraced football referee Owen Templeton, the Pear family led by opportunistic father Randy, eccentric Italian tourist Enrico Pollini and no-nonsense Nick Schaffer.
Duane (Green) and Blaine (Vieluf) manage to inadvertently destroy an airport radar with their Ford Bronco thus preventing anyone from flying to the finish line, before deciding to split up to double their chances of winning by creating a replica key. The locksmith overhears their plan, makes off with the key and tries to escape in a hot air balloon. Duane and Blaine catch up to him, leaving the locksmith and a stray dairy cow hanging from the balloon's anchor rope. The brothers later steal a monster truck when their own vehicle is destroyed.
Merrill (Lanai Chapman) and Vera (Goldberg) crash their car thanks to malicious road directions given by a crazed squirrel saleswoman (Bates). They steal a rocket car, which races across the desert until it runs out of fuel. The women dizzily stumble onto a bus full of mental patients which eventually drives toward Silver City.
Owen (Gooding Jr.) is left stranded in the desert by a vengeful cab driver who lost $20,000 on his bad call in a football game. He comes across a coach (bus) filled with women going to an I Love Lucy convention and disguises himself as the driver. Just outside Silver City, the bus hits the cow dangling from the hot air balloon, swerving off the road and suffering a puncture (and eventually rolling over). Owen breaks down, reveals he is not a coach driver and is forced to flee from the women on foot.
The (apparently Jewish) Pear family mistakenly visits a museum dedicated to the Nazi Klaus Barbie. After the Cody brothers vandalize their car engine, the Pears decide to steal Adolf Hitler's Mercedes-Benz staff car. Randy Pear (Lovitz) accidentally insults a biker gang, who attack the car, causing the Pears to crash into a meeting for World War II veterans, who believe the family to be Nazis after seeing Randy exiting Hitler's car while unknowingly resembling Hitler. Randy drugs his family, who wished to stop the race. He hitches a ride on a semi tractor to reach Silver City.
Nick (Meyer) refuses to participate until he meets helicopter pilot Tracy Faucet (Smart), who unlike others at the airport is still able to fly, using her non fixed-wing helicopter. They pass over Tracy's boyfriend's (Dean Cain) house but spot him with his ex-girlfriend, enraging Tracy to the point that she chases him in the helicopter. It stalls out, causing her and Nick to steal her boyfriend's truck.
Enrico (Rowan Atkinson), who is narcoleptic apparently, falls asleep at the start of the race but awakens hours later. He receives a lift from ambulance driver Zack Mallozzi (Knight), who is delivering a transplant heart to El Paso. Zack wants to show off the heart, but this results in it bouncing out the window. A stray dog picks it up and Enrico plays fetch with it, until the dog gets killed by an electric fence. Zack considers removing Enrico's heart to replace the first, before Enrico flees onto a passing train. Zack, in despair, touches the electric fence, which brings the retrieved heart back to life.
Sinclair and his gamblers wager on anything, even on what Sinclair's bland right-hand man Mr. Grisham can persuade a call girl to do. When they board a private jet, Sinclair even bets on which passenger in turbulent conditions will vomit first.
All the racers reunite in Silver City, most running side-by-side on foot toward the station. Enrico arrives first, by train, only to fall asleep with his key in the locker. Mr. Grisham and call girl Vicky have stolen the money bag. They lose it when the locksmith ties it to the balloon, only for the three to crash their car.
The racers follow the balloon until it lands at an outdoor charity concert hosted by Smash Mouth. All are persuaded to give the money to charity, some willingly, some reluctantly. Nick forces a horrified Sinclair and his patrons to match the amount raised (which is shown increasing at an alarming rate on the display board). The film ends with the stars leaping off the stage and crowd surfing with the exuberant audience.
- John Cleese as Donald P. Sinclair, a Las Vegas billionaire
- Breckin Meyer as Nick Schaffer, an uptight attorney
- Amy Smart as Tracy Faucet, a helicopter pilot
- Rowan Atkinson as Enrico Pollini, an Italian with narcolepsy
- Whoopi Goldberg as Vera Baker, a kindhearted mother
- Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Owen Templeton, a disgraced football referee
- Seth Green as Duane Cody, a ne'er-do-well
- Vince Vieluf as Blaine Cody, Duane's unintelligible brother
- Jon Lovitz as Randy Pear, an irresponsible tourist
- Kathy Najimy as Bev Pear, Randy's wife
- Lanai Chapman as Merrill Jennings, a businesswoman
- Dave Thomas as Grisham, Sinclair's assistant
- Wayne Knight as Zack Mallozzi, a medical transport van driver
- Brody Smith as Jason Pear
- Jillian Marie Hubert as Kimberly Pear
- Paul Rodriguez as Gus, a cabbie
- Dean Cain as Shawn Kent, Tracy's boyfriend
- Brandy Ledford as Vicky, a call girl
- Silas Weir Mitchell as Lloyd, the locksmith
- Colleen Camp as Rainbow House Nurse
- Deborah Theaker as a Lucy
- Gloria Allred as herself
- Kathy Bates (uncredited) as the Squirrel Lady
- Diamond Dallas and Kimberly Page (deleted scenes) as themselves
- Rat Race is the first film to feature two African-American actors who had previously won Academy Awards: Gooding (Best Supporting Actor for Jerry Maguire) and Goldberg (Best Supporting Actress for Ghost).
- Lawyer Gloria Allred is featured in two scenes. The first is when she happens to be nearby when a woman slips on an overturned empty shot glass (meant for Blaine Cody) and is injured falling down a flight of stairs, prompting Allred to immediately take up the woman's case against the hotel. The second is when Allred is on a hotel balcony as Enrico Pollini is hit by Zack's van, whereupon she is eager to handle Pollini's lawsuit.
- Sinclair and the gamblers' eccentric habits are further exaggerated in deleted scenes, where they partake in many more ridiculous bets, including playing Monopoly with real money. In another scene, a high roller pretends to find what they are doing as immoral.
- Professional wrestler Diamond Dallas Page and his wife, Kimberly, had a cameo that was cut when test audiences failed to give his appearance any reaction. The scene is available on the DVD release.
- Vieluf lost billing when his agent attempted to secure him star billing. As a result, Vieluf was left out of all promotional material, even though his character was seen in a majority of the film. Vieluf later fired that agent.
- Director Zucker's late mother, Charlotte, made a cameo appearance as one of the Lucille Ball impersonators.
- Cleese's character of Donald Sinclair may be based on the hotelier of the same name, the presumed inspiration for Cleese's famous Basil Fawlty character from Fawlty Towers.
- This is the fourth film that actresses Goldberg and Najimy were cast in together with their previous efforts Soapdish, Sister Act and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
- This is the second film actors Meyer and Smart worked together in, and were also each other's love interest; the first being Road Trip.
- This film reunited Chapman and Goldberg who worked together on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
- Meyer and Najimy would reunite on Meyer's legal comedy series Franklin & Bash with Meyer playing attorney Jared Franklin and Najimy in a recurring role as Judge Sturges.
- Filming locations
- The climactic railroad station scenes in Silver City, New Mexico were filmed at the restored train station at East Ely, Nevada, a popular tourist destination, as Silver City has no real train station.
- The scene with the coin toss by Owen Templeton was filmed at McMahon Stadium in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Rat Race was released in both Canada and the United States on August 17, 2001 and took in USD$11,662,094 in its opening weekend at the U.S. Box office, landing at #3 behind American Pie 2 and Rush Hour 2, and ultimately making approximately $85.5 million worldwide, based on a budget of an estimated $48 million.
Rat Race opened to mixed reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 44% "rotten" rating; the critical consensus is that "Rat Race moves from one sight gag to another, but only a handful of them are genuinely funny." On Metacritic, which uses an average of critics' reviews, the film holds 52/100, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
- The Amazing Race
- It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – a comedy film with a similar plot
- Scavenger Hunt
- The Cannonball Run
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