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 2 decades, would helm 20+ films, with mixed results (I’m an unashamed 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 his worst outings (I couldn’t stand Stroker Ace), there were still plenty of thrills, as well as a strong sense of fun that was hard to resist. This was certainly the case with his debut movie, Smokey and the Bandit.
The Bandit (Burt Reynolds), a semi-retired truck driver, 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’s gonna need some help, so he asks his good friend, Cletus (Jerry Reed), to give him a hand. Driving a souped-up Trans Am, the Bandit speeds down the highway, drawing the attention of every state trooper he comes across, which then clears the way for Cletus, who’s 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’s 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 Reynolds, and he spends most of the film just being himself. There’s even a scene where he breaks down the fourth wall and smiles directly at the audience, something that would have felt completely out of place in any other movie but this one. As for the supporting cast, country music star Jerry Reed makes for a good 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’s 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.