While this may not sound like the most enthusiastic praise, Hooper is better than most of Burt Reynolds’ myriad car-chase comedies of the ’70s and ’80s. However, because Reynolds’ good-ol’-boy charm was among the most appealing textures in mainstream ’70s cinema, noting that he was at the height of his powers when he made Hooper underscores why the movie works: Despite a story so thin it sometimes threatens to evaporate, Hooper offers 99 minutes of comic escapism driven by the macho charisma of its mustachioed leading man.
One of several late-’70s/early-’80s film and TV projects celebrating the work of Hollywood stuntmen, Hooper stars Reynolds as Sonny Hooper, an aging daredevil who realizes a career change is imminent because his body can’t take much more abuse. When we meet him, Sonny is employed as the stunt double for Adam West (who plays himself) on the 007-style action picture The Spy Who Laughed at Danger. Despite being a pro who regularly delivers spectacular “gags,” Sonny clashes with the movie’s asshole director, Roger Deal (Robert Klein), since Deal demands impossible results on budget and on schedule, then takes credit for the footage Sonny and his team make possible.
Sonny is involved with Gwen (Sally Field), the daughter of a retired stuntman (Brian Keith). Because Gwen has seen firsthand what stunt work does to the human body, she’s adamant that Sonny quit, but Deal’s pressure and Sonny’s own vanity become obstacles. Then a hot new stuntman, Delmore “Ski” Shidski (Jan-Michael Vincent), arrives on the scene. Although Sonny recognizes that he’s being replaced with a younger model, he insists on going out with a final super-stunt. The gentle drama of the picture, which obviously takes a backseat to action scenes and jokey interplay, stems from the question of whether Sonny will push his luck too far or succeed in providing Deal with the gag to end all gags.
Hooper was a bit of a family affair for Reynolds, and the pleasure he presumably derived from making the picture is visible onscreen. The movie reunited Reynolds with his longtime buddy, stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, following their success with Smokey and the Bandit (1977), and Field was Reynolds’ offscreen paramour in addition to being his frequent costar.
Needham’s intimate familiarity with the stunt world benefits the movie greatly, because many details—from the preparations of car engines for jumps to the application of Ben-Gay on aching knees—feel effortlessly authentic. And while the character work and dialogue are as simplistic as one might expect from this sort of picture, the key actors are so watchable that we want Deal to get his comeuppance, we want Sonny to succeed, and so on. Plus, of course, the stunt sequences are fantastic, like the elaborate bit during which Sonny and Ski drive a sportscar through an entire town as it’s being demolished.