Wednesday, February 27, 2013

#926. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Directed By: Hal Needham

Starring: Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed

Tag line: "What We Have Here Is a Total Lack of Respect for the Law!"

Trivia:  Buford T. Justice was the name of a real Florida Highway Patrolman known to Burt Reynolds' father, who was once Chief of Police of Jupiter, Florida

For years, Hal Needham (one of the recipients of the Governor’s Award at the other night’s Oscar ceremony) worked as a Hollywood stunt man, risking life and limb in movies ranging from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. In 1977, he tried his hand at directing, and over the next two decades would helm 20+ films, with mixed results. I am a fan of 1981’s The Cannonball Run, a cable favorite of mine that was savaged by the critics, but it’s sequel, 1984’s Cannonball Run II, is damn near unwatchable. 

Yet even in Needham's worst outings (I couldn’t stand Stroker Ace), there were plenty of thrills, as well as a strong sense of fun that was hard to resist. This was certainly the case with his debut feature, Smokey and the Bandit

The Bandit (Burt Reynolds), a semi-retired trucker, accepts a challenge from millionaire Big Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick) and his son Little Enos (Paul Williams), who will pay him $80,000 if he successfully smuggles a few hundred cases of Coors Beer into Georgia (which, at the time, was considered bootlegging). 

Naturally, the Bandit is gonna need some help pulling this off, so he asks his good friend, truck driver Cletus (Jerry Reed), to give him a hand. Driving a souped-up Trans Am, the Bandit races down the highway, drawing the attention of every state trooper he comes across, which then clears the way for Cletus, who is following just behind in a truck full of beer. 

Things go well for a while, but when the Bandit stops to pick up Carrie (Sally Field), a hitchhiker wearing a wedding dress, he inadvertently lands himself in a boatload of trouble. See, the guy Carrie was about to marry - and who she is now running away from - is Junior (Mike Henry), the son of Texas lawman Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Determined to track down the runaway bride, Sheriff Justice hits the open road, and before long is hot on the Bandit’s trail. 

To say Reynolds was the perfect actor to play the Bandit is technically incorrect, seeing as he never once gives the impression he’s acting. The role of the Bandit was tailor-made for him, and he spends most of the film just being himself. There’s even a scene where, after outwitting a pursuing cop car, the Bandit breaks the fourth wall and smiles directly into the camera, something that would have felt out of place in any movie other than this one. 

As for the supporting cast, country music star Jerry Reed makes for a great sidekick, and even provides some music for the film, including the catchy “East Bound and Down”. Sally Field is cute and bubbly as the fleeing bride and eventual love interest, and while they don’t appear in many scenes, Pat McCormick and Paul Williams are memorable as Big and Little Enos (especially Williams, who is hilarious). 

Yet it’s Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford T. Justice who almost walks off with the movie, occasionally pausing his dogged pursuit of the Bandit to toss a few side-splitting insults in the direction of his dim-witted son, Junior (“There is no way…NO WAY…that you come from my loins!”). 

One of the things I always liked about Smokey and the Bandit was how carefree it feels, and how it doesn’t take itself seriously for a single moment; even the scene where Cletus gets his ass kicked by some bikers ends with a smile. Throughout his directorial career, Hal Needham showed he had a knack for keeping things light, and that’s exactly what he does in this film. Filled with high-speed car chases and ‘70s C.B. lingo, Smokey and the Bandit may not be art, but it’s definitely a good time!

1 comment:

Robert M. Lindsey said...

Just one great movie! I read Needham's autobiography not too long ago, Stuntman!: My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life. Recommended reading if you're a fan. I love Cannonball Run, and also Hooper.