Monday, June 19, 2017

SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977) - ***1/2

Rated PG
Running time: 96 min.
Release date: May 27, 1977

Smokey and the Bandit was released just two days behind Star Wars during the last week of May in 1977. Considering the records that the latter film was setting back in the day, one might think that Smokey was left in the dust. It turns out that Smokey and the Bandit would be the second highest-grossing film of the year, holding its own against Darth Vader and company. Rest assured, Smokey and the Bandit is a vastly different film entirely from Star Wars both in terms of the story being told and the target audience. Smokey is another southern-fried, good ol' boy tale starring the master of this sub-genre, Burt Reynolds. His charisma and charm are part of the reason for its success, but there are more than a few other reasons as well.

There was a time when it was illegal to haul Coors beer east of the Mississippi. This aspect of the plot is seriously dated, however, if you transport yourself back to the late-70s, this is an acceptable hurdle of the story. Father and son, Big and Little Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick and Paul Williams, respectively), wealthy Texans, have been challenging truckers to make this haul for some time, with each one getting brought down by the long arm of the law. They seek out and find legendary trucker Bo "Bandit" Darville (Burt Reynolds) and pose the same challenge for him, with his reward for successfully pulling it off set at a cool $80,000. He recruits his partner and friend, Cledus "Snowman" Snow (Jerry Reed) to drive the truck to Texas from Georgia to pick up the beer and bring it back to Atlanta in 28 hours without getting caught. To help matters, Bandit will be driving a pretty sweet looking 1977 Trans-Am in order to distract the law from Snowman's illegal manifest. They communicate via that old piece of 1970s nostalgia, the CB radio. Somewhere in Texas, on the way back, Bandit runs into a runaway bride named Carrie (Sally Field), as she presumptuously tags along for the highway shenanigans. Unfortunately for Bandit, Carrie was leaving Junior Justice (Mike Henry) at the altar, the son of one Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Thus begins an interstate chase that fills out the rest of the plot. And it is a very thin plot at that. However, it is filled with so much fun in terms of chase scenes, funny dialogue and some great high-speed camerawork. There isn't much to the story other than fast cars and hilarious one-liners. This is a dumb movie that only goes as far as the action and cast are willing to take it, and they take it all the way to the finish line.

Director Hal Needham makes his debut with this film, after having previously been one of the best-known stuntmen in Hollywood. In Smokey and the Bandit, Needham proves himself to be more than adequate at filming high-speed chases, while at the same time, pacing the story almost as quickly as the vehicles can move. He would go on to direct other notable high-octane films such as The Cannonball Run and Stroker Ace. Assisting Needham with the cinematography is Bobby Byrne, and together they have shot and edited a fast-paced, fast-talking film that only slows down for a few brief moments to allow for the inevitable romance between Reynolds and Field. Surprisingly, Needham is able to build this little subplot with subtle things like dialogue and sideways glances.

Of course, a movie with very little plot relies heavily on its cast to carry things, and in this case the cast gets the job done. Burt Reynolds oozes charisma and charm as Bandit and has good chemistry with his female lead, Sally Field. No surprise that during this time, the two began dating. The verbal interplay between the two is filled with flirtatious dialogue and also works as comedy, as the two bounce jokes off one another. Jerry Reed as Snowman gets a little moment as well in a scene where he is jumped by several bar patrons. His face changes from beaten to evil glee in a matter of seconds when he gets his revenge by running over their motorcycles. They are all good here, but the show is completely stolen by Jackie Gleason as Sheriff Buford T. Justice. Gleason gets all the best lines in the film as he deals with his incompetent son, the various law enforcement from state-to-state, and the Bandit himself. Say what you will about Reynolds being the star, but this is Gleason's film and probably his finest moment on-screen.

Smokey and the Bandit makes the most out of its threadbare plot elements and relies solely on the action on-screen and the work of the cast. The Good Ol' Boy subgenre was winding down at this point in the late 70s, but this film kept it alive for a few more years all on its own, making way for a television show like The Dukes of Hazzard to become very popular. It is certainly a time capsule for an older generation, with dated elements, but every other aspect of Smokey is timeless.

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