Review: Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

>> Saturday, December 5, 2009

USA/C-96m./Dir: Hal Needham/Wr: James Lee Barrett, Charles Shyer, and Alan Mandel/Cast: Burt Reynolds (Bo “Bandit” Darville), Sally Field (Carrie a.k.a. “Frog”), Jerry Reed (Cledus “Snowman” Snow), Jackie Gleason (Sheriff Buford T. Justice), Mike Henry (Junior Justice), Pat McCormick (Big Enos Burdette), Paul Williams (Little Enos Burdette)

Stuntman Hal Needham began his directorial career by concocting a story that mixed elements of the drive-in moonshine movie craze (begun with 1958’s Thunder Road) and the CB radio fad (popularized by the C.W. McCall’s novelty song "Convoy"). The resulting film, Smokey and the Bandit, ended up making a whopping $126,737,428 (in 1977 dollars) at the box office and spawned a couple of lesser sequels and a number of awful imitators. It also signaled the beginning of Burt Reynolds’ period of greatest audience popularity and lowest critical approval.

For the twelve people who have never seen this film, Reynolds stars as a legendary trucker known as “the Bandit” who accepts a bet at a Georgia truck rodeo to pick up 400 cases of Coors beer in Texarkana, Texas and return within 28 hours. If he succeeds, he will receive $80,000 from millionaire Big Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick) and his son, Little Enos (Paul Williams). However, if he fails it could mean jail time. In addition to speeding and reckless driving, the Bandit would technically be bootlegging, because transporting Coors beer east of Texas was illegal at the time.

The Bandit’s plan is to distract any troupers along the way in a black Pontiac Trans-Am, while his partner Cledus “Snowman” Snow (Jerry Reed) drives the beer in the 18-wheeler. However, the task becomes more difficult when the Bandit picks up a hitchhiker (Sally Field) that is on the run after skipping out on her wedding to the son of Texas lawman Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Of course, car chases, crack-ups, and mild hilarity ensue.

Smokey and the Bandit is a dumb movie. Still, it is slick, amiable, and more or less harmless. Technically, it is above-average for a film of its type. The camerawork and compositions are quite good; and as one would expect from a film directed by a former stuntman, the stunt work is top-notch. Unfortunately, Needham was not as good a director of actors as he was of automobiles. Consequently, many of the secondary performances by the less-experienced members of the cast are embarrassingly bad. Luckily for Needham, he had pros in all of the primary speaking parts who could get by with or without his direction.

While Reynolds, Field, and Reed squeeze the most out of a generally weak script, it is Jackie Gleason’s performance as Sheriff Buford T. Justice that really makes the film worth watching. For this late career role, Gleason combined aspects of his most famous television characters--a bit of the swagger of Reginald Van Gleason III, a lot of the bluster of Ralph Kramden, and a touch of the obsequiousness of Fenwick Babbitt (“Thank you, nice lady”). To that cocktail, he added a lot of Southern stereotypes and improvised dialogue, spiced with colorful profanity and vitriol. In other hands, Buford T. Justice would be an ugly, unlikable character, but Gleason’s characterization is so funny that you can’t help but root for the racist, self-centered, blowhard. It is a 4-star performance in an otherwise 2-star film.

While beer is an important plot element, there is very little imbibing in Smokey and the Bandit. Like the moonshine movies that it imitated, this popular popcorn pic is more about transporting alcohol than it is about actually drinking it. However, it is a movie that plays much better when the audience is fully loaded.

Drinks Consumed--Beer

Intoxicating Effects--Brawling, public disturbance, and physical violence

Potent Quotables--BANDIT: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Why d’ya want that beer so bad?
LITTLE ENOS: Because he’s thirsty, dummy.
BIG ENOS: You see, I got a boy runnin’ tomorrow in the Southern Classic, and uh, when he wins, I want to celebrate in style.
BANDIT: How much style?
BIG ENOS: Well, I got a few friends and me, uh, 400 cases.

Video Availability--Smokey and the Bandit is available as a standalone DVD or boxed with its sequels as the Smokey and the Bandit: Pursuit Pack (Universal).

Similarly Sauced Cinema--All of the film’s principal actors returned for the so-so Smokey and the Bandit II (1980). Reynolds, Field, and director Needham wisely sat out the second sequel, imaginatively titled Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (1983). Gleason and Reed weren’t as lucky.

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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