Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Smokey and the Bandit

Smokey and the Bankrupt Insurance Company

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "Smokey and the Bandit" (Universal Pictures/Rastar Films, 1977). Texas tycoon Enos "Big Enos" Burdette (Pat McCormick) and his son, "Little Enos" (Paul Williams) have an ongoing wager: Get a truck driver to drive from Atlanta, Georgia, to Texarkana, Texas to pick up a load of Coors Beer and deliver it back to Atlanta in 28 hours.

I love this casting. It must be hard to keep both of them in frame, though.

There's just one problem… Taking Coors beer across the eastern Texas border constitutes a federal bootlegging charge and every driver they have employed has been busted on the return trip. To this end, the two track down the legendary Bo "The Bandit" Darville (Burt Reynolds) at a truck rodeo to entice him with an $80,000 purse.
Our hero.

The Bandit has a plan: He employs his partner Cledus "Snowman" Snow (Jerry Reed) to drive his truck and transport the beer, while he drives a black souped-up Pontiac Trans Am to act as a "blocker," AKA a distraction to lure police ("Smokey Bears," nicknamed for their wide-brimmed hats) away from Snowman.
Jerry Reed, fresh off the New Scooby-Doo Movies (I'm not making that up).

The plan works flawlessly until The Bandit picks up a hitchhiker on their way out of Texas, Carrie (Sally Field), a stereotypical runaway bride.
Pictured: A desperate woman.

When her "Just Married" wedding car breaks down, she flags down The Bandit and hops into his car. It turns out she was pressured by sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) into marrying his idiot son, Junior (Mike Henry).
It was apparently Gleason's idea to include the character of Junior. Good call.

Once Justice discovers Carrie (who The Bandit has given the handle "Frog" to) has run off with The Bandit, he begins pursuing the duo across the country to get her back and put The Bandit behind bars!
Or possibly die trying.

Some details

This is the directorial debut of veteran stuntman Hal Needham, who became known for his racing and car chase films. He also shares a writing credit on this film with Robert L. Levy, who went on to have an extensive career in Hollywood, writing quite a few big-name comedies… and their less successful (sometimes direct-to-video) sequels. This movie is commonly remembered as a showcase for Burt Reynolds, but let's face it: The real stars of this film are the iconic black Trans Am and its CB radio.

Starring: General Motors!

I don't think that modern audiences can appreciate how cool it was to hear conversations over the air in rural communities.

This film really kicked CB's popularity into overdrive in the late 70s and early 80s (the era B.C. -- Before Cellphones), and popularized the entire genre of "country boy car stunts" that would spawn "The Dukes of Hazzard" a few years later. As well as co-starring in the film, Jerry Reed co-wrote most of the songs and performed them all, and the song "East Bound and Down" became one of his all-time greatest hits. It really bares stating that this film was an absolutely HUGE hit in its time, earning a box office gross of over $120,000,000 on a budget of just over $4,000,000.

The bad

So with all the star power, dangerous automotive stunts, and cross-country scenery, is it a good film? Mmmm… No. It is solidly a product of its time, which in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the director and writer's inexperience is front and center here. This is a "fun-romp" comedy and there's practically no drama, which reduces the stakes, but the problem is that most of the jokes don't really have punchlines that land either. The Bandit as a character is very shallow, and that becomes even more apparent as Frog tries to initiate a romantic relationship with him.

Just remember: No matter how awkward the romance is, we were spared a sex scene.

Some of the jokes are contingent on the racist tropes of the time, and while the character (Gleason's Justice) is depicted as a moron in his own right, it can be uncomfortable to watch.

The good

But is it all bad? Mmmm… No, not really. While the whole movie is a low-stakes rambling mess, there's enough action to keep things moving at an enjoyable clip.

I mean, the whole movie is basically one long high speed car chase.

While the characters are shallow and empty, the actors are extremely likable and charismatic (yes, even Burt Reynolds -- there's a reason he was a draw in this era of film). Sally Field is at her prime here, cute as a button while simultaneously showing her tight-pantsed posterior in a lot of scenes.
Ooh, those gams!

There are a few familiar "B movie" faces among some of the CB radio backup cast, and I suspect that most are friends of Hal Needham.
Many of these actors appear in other Needham films.

The only character with any real dramatic scenes in the film is Jerry Reed's Snowman, and Reed does a fantastic job balancing comedy with seriousness. There is one scene where Justice stops at a greasy spoon restaurant that The Bandit is also stopped at, and has a pretty funny conversation with The Bandit without recognizing that he's the driver he has been chasing, which I found quite enjoyable.
Creative and funny for the time, just funny today.

Mike Henry (known for playing Tarzan in several movies) plays the incredibly stupid Junior Justice perfectly, although his natural strength and stature is never really featured in the film.
He's actually a pretty good physical actor.

My memories of this movie

When I was a young lad, living in the boonies of Pennsylvania in the late 70s, this sort of southern-centric country western media was all the rage, and I will admit that for a brief time I was infatuated with CB radios, belt buckles, western hats, cowboy boots, turquoise jewelry, and mother of pearl buttoned shirts. This passed pretty quickly. Still, I thought this movie was hilarious, with the (very slight) cursing and dangerous stunt work.

Jumping cars over things never gets old, does it?

It's still entertaining, but more as a slice of time and how objectively terrible these things can be.

Is it child-safe?

If you're watching with young children, be aware that the film is rated PG for dangerous car stunts (with nary a seatbelt in view), foul language (mostly from Jackie Gleason), lots of smoking (it was the 70s, after all) and the previously mentioned racism (again, from Jackie Gleason). Despite the amount of police chases in the film, there are no guns fired at all, and I'm struggling to remember if any of the officers are actually armed.

There is flagrant door-smashing though. Mostly from this guy.

Where can you watch it?

I watched my personal DVD copy of the movie, but as of this review it can be streamed on Netflix, The Roku Channel with a subscription, or streamed on Apple TV, Prime Video, Redbox, or Vudu for a rental fee.

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