Directed by Hal Needham
Written by James Lee Barrett, Charles Shyer, and Alan Mandel, Story by Hal Needham and Robert Levy
Starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed, Jackie Gleason, Mike Henry, Paul Williams, Pat McCormick
While George Lucas’ Star Wars appears in hindsight to have been the most popular film of 1977, before its release, many feared it would be creamed by another film, this one much less spacy and more, shall we say, homespun. And while the Wookiee did indeed take the prize of the highest-grossing film of the year, stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham’s pet project, Smokey and the Bandit, came in a comfortable second, and today still carves out its own sizable piece of pop culture history,
In the summer of 1976 “Big Enos” Burdette (Pat McCormick), a flamboyant Texan millionaire, needs a vast quantity of beer for a rally, but the brand of beer he wants is Coors which at this time cannot be legally transported across the Mississippi. To get this job done, Burdette recruits modern day moonshiner Bo Darville (Burt Reynolds), nicknamed Bandit for his previous exploits, for a hefty six-figure payment–if he can complete the task in the span of twenty-eight hours. Darville in turn recruits his pal Cledus Snow (Jerry Reed) and his eighteen-wheeler for the job, with himself driving blocker in a hot Pontiac Trans-Am, to draw off any police interference. The trip to Texas and loading of beer goes without interruption, but the trip back to Georgia begins to pick up complications when Darville is encounters a runaway bride (Sally Field), the wacky Texas Sheriff (Jackie Gleason) hot on her tail, and multiple police agencies dead-set on apprehending the legendary Bandit.
Now I admit here, like my reviews for Alien and Blade Runner, that I am incredibly biased towards Smokey and the Bandit. There isn’t a whole lot I can find wrong with it, and the reason for that is two-fold; yes, I grew up on this film, so the nostalgia factor is high, but it is also, simply, a really well done piece. There is no denying or marginalizing it, no matter how much one might not care for southern culture or light comedy.
Why is it so good? For three reasons named Hal Needham, Burt Reynolds, and Jackie Gleason. Beginning as an idea born out of drinking Coors beer on the set of Gator, Smokey and the Bandit is very much the baby of Needham, who at the time was a legend in his own right as the highest paid, and most well-known Hollywood stuntman in the world. Needham’s and fellow writer Robert Levy’s premise was as simple as it was charming: a truck-driving legend, very much based on Needham himself, must complete a bet of smuggling Coors beer across several state lines in just over one whole day. It very much turns the film into one long chase, playing to Needham’s strengths as a stunt coordinator. He employs the tried-and-true locked-down camera, opting to let the impressive vehicular stunts speak for themselves as the Bandit careens down back dirt roads and wide open highways with sometimes as many as a dozen police cars on his tail. The studio suits may have had little confidence in Needham’s ability to helm a film, but he sure showed them.
As the second and just-as-vital piece of the trinity, Burt Reynolds shines. Taking the picture as a favor to his friend and roommate Needham, Reynolds dumps out his more theatrical and esoteric acting ambitions and settles into a charming Southern character with a love of fun and an even greater love of authority-defying thrills. He also is afforded many opportunities to flaunt his natural comedic talent, whether he is poking fun at Carrie’s discomfort in a 110 mph romp or simply smiling at the camera like the cinematic forefather of Deadpool and Ferris Bueller.
The third leg of the veritable bar stool that makes this film such a delight is undoubtedly Jackie Gleason. While not involved in the creative process to the extent of Needham and Levy or even as much as Reynolds, Gleason’s character of Buford T. Justice, the film’s bumbling villain, is decidedly all his. Reportedly, all of Gleason’s dialogue was thrown out before filming began, leaving just about every moment of screentime he inhabits to be shaped and molded by his considerable talents. And boy, does it pay off. With Mike Henry playing an incredibly effective straight man at his right hand, Gleason pulls off some of the best work of his already by-then long career, and conceives a character that is even more recognizable than the Bandit himself.
Not to leave out Sally Field or Jerry Reed, however, as their contributions also elevate the picture past drive-in trash and into mainstream fame. Field, who by then was known as a more serious actress, enters Reynold’s fun-loving world with relative ease, and becomes quite the sex symbol without ever having to kick off a single piece of clothing. Okay, I lied–she did lose the wedding dress, but that was under a sheet, so it really doesn’t count. And what can be said about Reed’s Cledus “Snowman” Snow other than, well, he’s Jerry Reed? He really needs no introduction or acting to speak of, he just plays himself as he always has, and is great fun to watch. His songs are also a highlight of the production, becoming as beloved as the images on the screen. And you know you can make good music when I find myself singing along to ‘Eastbound and Down.’ And I don’t like country, so there’s that.
A word of note to those seeking the film out to watch it: while there is only one version of the film, its soundmix has been substantially tampered with in recent years. Originally released in mono, most DVD, Blu-ray, and high-definition television releases have used a new surround remaster, which replaces almost every single sound effect used in the film, from the Trans-Am’s iconic engine roar to Fred the Bassett Hound’s barking. While this won’t bother most, to some like myself who consider Smokey and the Bandit a precious heirloom, this is downright heresy. Luckily, the latest Blu-ray includes the original mix in DTS 2.0, and this is what I used to write this review.
If you are one of the few who hasn’t seen Smokey and the Bandit, consider yourself a deprived human being. Even painted-blue city dwellers seem to gravitate to and eat up this film, and it’s no surprise that they do. When something like this is so well done and so fun (and funny!) to watch, it easily strikes the right nerves. And considering how much a pure and easygoing image it paints of the American South, it has become a sort of poster child for Southern culture that stands above the rest of its easily (and most of the time, rightfully) savaged kin. What I am trying to say is…
Get the hell off the couch and go get this movie, you sumbitch!