Should I Watch..? 'Smokey and the Bandit'
What's the big deal?
Smokey And The Bandit is an action comedy movie released in 1977 and marked the directorial debut of legendary stuntman Hal Needham. The film stars Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jackie Gleeson and country singer Jerry Reed and concerns a cross-country drive to deliver illegal liquor while staying one step ahead of the law. The film had a massive impact on audiences, earning more than $300 million worldwide and turned the Pontiac Trans Am, which features heavily in the film, into a sales phenomenon. It also led to two sequels, a series of television films and a revival of interest in road movies in general such as The Cannonball Run which also starred Reynolds. While critics were divided as to the film's merits, the film did acquire some notable fans including Alfred Hitchcock and Reynolds himself who stated that the film was the one he enjoyed the most.
What's it about?
Wealthy Texan brothers Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette are interested in acquiring some Coors beer at their place in Georgia but there's a problem - Coors couldn't legally be sold east of the Mississippi at the time so they offer a $80'000 prize to anyone who can make the delivery without catching the attention of "Smokey" - CB radio slang for the police. They end up recruiting legendary trucker Bo "Bandit" Darville and his partner Cledus "Snowman" Snow who hatch a plan - Snowman drives the truck with the beer while Bandit acts as a speeding decoy in a black Trans Am.
After travelling to Texas to pick up the beer, their journey back to Georgia proves much more problematic. For starters, they only have 28 hours to bring the beer back to Georgia or the beer will go off. Secondly, Bandit accidentally runs into runaway bride Carrie who is fleeing from her wedding to Junior Justice. Nicknaming her "Frog", the pair speed off but not without Junior and his overbearing, career lawman father Sheriff Buford T. Justice who begins pursuing them with a burning intensity...
Bo "Bandit" Darville
Carrie / "Frog"
Sheriff Buford T. Justice
Cledus "Snowman" Snow
Big Enos Burdette
Little Enos Burdette
James Lee Barrett, Charles Shyer & Alan Mandel*
Release Date (UK)
26th August, 1977
Action, Comedy, Road
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film Editing
What's to like?
Smokey And The Bandit is a delightfully silly film that isn't afraid of its own light-hearted nature. At no point does it take itself too seriously which is exactly the right way to handle a film that is basically one enormous car chase. The narrative doesn't get in the way, the romantic subplot between Bandit and Frog offers some gentle relief from all the pedal-pushing mayhem and the film's baddie is one for the ages. Gleeson's wonderfully redneck Buford T. Justice is both a celebration and mockery of self-important lawmen in the Deep South, harbouring prejudices and a limited intelligence together with a fanatical desire to throw our heroes in jail. Gleeson has by far the best lines and gets the biggest laughs - if he wasn't such an ass, you'd be cheering for him.
Obviously, a road movie such as this requires a decent amount of screen-time given over to the film's wheeled cast and Needham has an in-built knowledge of exactly what stunts can be done with a variety of vehicles. While there isn't anything to match some of the jaw-dropping stunts seen in Bond movies (specifically The Man With The Golden Gun with its barrel-roll jump across a river), the film provides plenty to enjoy - especially anyone with a hatred for police cars, which bear the brunt of the carnage. The film isn't at all high-brow but instead has a real sense of fun behind it that shines through the picture. If you switch your brain off, you'll really enjoy this.
- The film's theme "East Bound And Down" was composed by Reed at the request of Needham. When Reed played it to the director after a few hours, Needham stopped him mid-song and Reed thought that he hated it. Instead, Needham told him that if he changed one note, he'd kill him and the song became one of Reed's biggest hits.
- This film would have been the highest grossing film of 1977 if it weren't for another movie becoming a huge success - the very first Star Wars.
- Buford T. Justice was the actual name of a Florida Highway Patrol officer and Gleeson based his performance on Reynolds' description of him. Reynolds' father, who was Chief of Police at Riviera Beach, knew the guy. Among the character traits that Gleeson brought to the screen was his habit of saying "sumbitch", a colloquial pronunciation of another phrase.
What's not to like?
If only Reynolds had brought his character to life the same way Gleeson did. While his portrayal of a hairy-lipped ladies man is perfectly fine, I kinda got the feeling that it wasn't too much of a stretch for Reynolds. And although she feels out-of-her-depth and somewhat miscast, Field actually does well as the denim-clad eye candy forced into an adventure beyond her understanding. I would have liked to have seen more of Reed's Snowman and the relationship with his long-suffering bloodhound Fred but given that most of the action involves Burt's Trans Am and Gleeson's police car, I can forgive this.
It was never going to win any awards but Smokey And The Bandit makes the fatal mistake of making its villains more entertaining than its heroes. Buford T. Justice, who may have been influenced by Sheriff J.W. Pepper from the aforementioned The Man With The Golden Gun, and the banter with his idiot son are just far too enjoyable while our heroes aren't much more than classic southern stereotypes. These days, of course, the plot doesn't make much sense - surely they could have used a refrigerated truck to negate the time limit? And while the portrayal of Buford T. Justice is fun, his impulsive nature and barely concealed racism and prejudices seem sadly more relevant today than ever before. But why let such matters sully an otherwise enjoyable caper?
Should I watch it?
Smokey And The Bandit is probably best described as a post-pub classic, the sort of film that requires a certain suspension of common sense and cohesion to work fully. It's undeniably fun with Gleeson's tobacco-chewing Sheriff the star of the show and that classic Trans Am looking better and sexier with each passing day. But if you stop to look at the film for too long, you'll find a film that has little narrative running through it and forgettable heroes attempting an often unfathomable quest.
Great For: viewers in the Dixie states, Trans Am owners, Coors, Pontiac shareholders
Not So Great For: actual law enforcement, overworked censors
What else should I watch?
Neither of the sequels took the world by storm in the way the original did although this shouldn't surprise too much - how much mileage can be wrung from a premise as flimsy as this one? Smokey And The Bandit II was an ill-advised sequel that doubled up on the number of crashes and the amount of Gleeson involved (he played three variations on the same character) but was only half as funny. The final entry, the utterly witless Smokey And The Bandit Part 3, largely dispensed with Reynolds' Bandit character altogether and focused entirely on Buford T. Justice and is arguably the least welcome third entry in any film series in history.
Road movies aren't as popular as they used to be, reaching their zenith in the late Sixties with Easy Rider. Following classic examples like Vanishing Point and Duel, the genre reached its zenith with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior which features some of the greatest stunt-work ever seen on four wheels. Until the recent Mad Max: Fury Road brought road movies bang up to date, the genre had sunk back into B-movie territory and uninspired comedies like Wild Hogs.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox