Smokey and the Bandit (1977) – Directed by Hal Needham – Starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed, Mike Henry, and Jackie Gleason.
I’ve always liked movies about cars and ships. Dukes of Hazzard, Starblazers, Cannonball Run, Knight Rider, Speed Buggy … even if the ship or car couldn’t make or break a movie or show, it sure as heck made it cooler. I really didn’t care a whit about them confounded Duke Boys or Michael Knight, and I couldn’t even tell you the name of one character on Speed Buggy, but show me the General Lee jumping a creek, or KITT’s Cylon grill, or Speedy Buggy spinning his wheels and I was hooked. I think I was more broken up about being told the General really couldn’t make all those jumps than I was about finding out Santa Claus wasn’t real.
Cars can make a guy just as stupid as women, and in as many ways. If I see David Hasselhoff hosting a reality show I never say, “Oh, cool, Michael Knight!” but every single time Mr. Feeny showed up on screen, I was like, “That dude was KITT.”
Somehow I’ve managed to go my whole life without seeing SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT all the way through. Well, that’s been corrected and I’m happy to say that BANDIT is 96 minutes of awesome.
I should hate the movie. For starters, Burt Reynolds acts like he’s daring the producers to not pay him. Bandit is introduced in the movie when Big and Little Enos come looking for him, wanting him to bootleg some Coors beer from Texarkana, Texas to Georgia. See, kids, in 1977, you couldn’t buy Coors beer east of Texas because in 1977 the United States was run by Communists. Bandit is all stretched out on a hammock, sleeping away with his hat pulled down over his eyes. His capitalizing on his local fame, basically getting paid to sleep there so people can say they saw the local legend. When the Burdettes come to him with an offer, it’s like Bandit has to be dragged to participate, but then once he commits it’s all a laugh and not to be taken too seriously.
Maybe it’s because Reynolds is that good an actor or maybe it’s because it looks like he’s not acting at all, it’s hard not to see Reynolds treating the movie the way Bandit treats the bet. Like, “you’re gonna pay me a crapload of money to do this? Cool. Bring me a hot car and hotter woman. Or the other way around. It’s all good.”
There’s something charming about the way Reynolds acts; he’s one of the very few movie stars who literally seems like he’s acting for you. It’s like he’s letting you in on the joke and he’s just gonna do his thing for 90 minutes and then you can go grab a beer together and chase skirts and laugh about that time he drove a Firebird across a wide open field in Georgia. There’s no pretense here that this is an actual movie. When Bandit pulls off a tricky escape from a local cop there’s no one there to see it so he pulls the car to a stop and looks right into the camera and gives you a little smile in a such a way that he knows you’re impressed with what he just did.
Bandit says all kinds of things that make no sense (and not just because I don’t understand CB jargon) and the impression it leaves you with is that Reynolds only bothered to read half the script and then just riffed the rest. When Carrie tells him she wants a handle, Bandit tells her he’s going to call her “Frog,” which he then explains he chose as her handle “’cause you’re kinda cute like a frog … and I want to jump you.”
The entirety of the plot is that Bandit and Snowman (played by country music legend Jerry Reed, who also co-wrote and sings the movie’s excellent theme song, “East Bound and Down”) go to Texarkana, pick up the Coors, and then drive it back to Georgia. Bandit gets in a brand new Pontiac Firebird and serves as the “blocker,” deflecting the cops attention away from the big rig transporting the illegal booze. Bandit picks up runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field), which sets Texas Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) on his tail because the man Carrie jilted was Buford’s son, Junior (Mike Henry).
Plot threads appear and disappear depending on their ability to lead to a good stunt sequence or funny line.
The whole set-up is getting that Coors into Georgia, but the cops never actually give a crap about catching Snowman’s rig. There’s one small bit where a cop asks for his manifest, but then Bandit shows up and the cop goes after him instead. Buford is chasing Bandit because Carrie’s in the car, but Bandit never finds that out and as the film progresses it’s like no one cares about that anymore. We’re told that Bandit and Snowman have 28 hours to get to Texarkana and bring the beer back, but other than Bandit occasionally asking Snowman, “How we doing on time?” and Snowman responding with, “We’re 28 minutes ahead” there’s no real start or end to the time as staying ahead of the cops takes precedence over getting the beer to the Burdettes.
Jackie Gleason plays the good ol’ Texas boy Sheriff and his schtick basically consists of telling his idiot kid to shut up and order people around on the CB radio. Gleason isn’t so much funny in BANDIT as he is committed to being this egotistical, backwards thinking purveyor of one-liners. Half the things that come out of his mouth are awful, but they’re often pretty funny, too. After his kid does something to tick him off, Buford tells his son, “The first thing I’m gonna do when I get home is punch your momma in the mouth.”
Really, really funny.
Watching Sally Field play the cutesy, flirty, desperate Carrie is a bit disconcerting. I’ve always thought Sally Field was a wonderful actress, but I never thought of her as hot until watching BANDIT. I won’t make that mistake again – 1977 was a damn fine year for Sally Field, and to think that movie goers had both Princess Leia and Frog to witness that year … that’s a heck of a double feature.
The car chases are all pretty good and director Hal Needham does a great job making you feel the speed and power of these machines. Hell, he makes a Firebird look bad-ass and that alone should’ve got Needham a Best Director nod from the Academy.
There’s really only one serious scene in the movie and it comes when Snowman has stopped off at a local dive to refuel his rig and get some food. He takes his basset hound Fred into the restaurant and some biker thugs tell Snowman that the dog bit them and they should shoot it. Snowman sees he’s in trouble and when the inevitable bar brawl breaks out, he totally gets his ass kicked and tossed outside. His face bloodied and bruised, he struggles to pick his body off the ground and get himself and Fred back into his cab. You’re like, “Um … this isn’t fun,” but then Snowman recovers and drives his big rig straight over the biker’s row of bikes, demolishing them and moving on down the road.
1977 wasn’t just a good year for Sally Field; it was a damn fine year for movies, too: BANDIT, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever, A Bridge Too Far, Annie Hall, Slap Shot, The Spy Who Loved Me … that’s a whole lot of good cinema. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT certainly isn’t my favorite movie of that year, but in it’s own way it’s every bit as enjoyable as the rest of them.