The voiceover hype in the trailer says it all: “Burt Reynolds is Gator McCluskey—he’s a booze-runnin’, motor-gunnin’, law-breakin’, love-makin’ rebel. He hits the screen like a bolt of white lightning!” Indeed he does in White Lightning, arguably the best of Reynolds’ myriad ’70s flicks about working-class good ol’ boys mixin’ it up with John Q. Law. Whereas too many of the star’s Southern-fried action pictures devolve into silly comedy—including, to some degree, White Lightning’s sequel, Gator—the first screen appearance of Gator McCluskey is a sweaty, tough thriller pitting a formidable hero against an even more formidable villain. If you’ve got a hankering for swampy pulp, White Lightning is the gen-yoo-wine article.
When the picture begins, Bobby “Gator” McCluskey (Reynolds) is incarcerated for running moonshine. Meanwhile, back home in the boonies, corrupt Sheriff J.C. Conners (Ned Beatty) causes the death of Gator’s little brother. Once Gator hears the news, he swears revenge and joins an FBI sting operation targeting Conners’ crew. Using a staged jailbreak for cover, Gator hooks up with a moonshiner named Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins) and penetrates Conners’ operation in order to dredge up incriminating facts. However, it’s not long before the no-good sheriff smells a rat, setting the stage for a showdown. Written by William W. Norton and directed by the versatile Joseph Sargent, White Lightning is a no-nonsense thrill ride. Even though the filmmakers cram all the requisite elements into the picture’s lean 101 minutes—including a love story between Gator and Roy’s girl, Lou (Jennifer Billingsley)—the focus remains squarely on Gator’s hunger for vengeance, which manifests in bar brawls, car chases, shootouts, and various other forms of 100-proof conflict.
Working in the fierce mode of his performance in Deliverance (1972), Reynolds is a he-man force of nature, whether he’s punching his way through hand-to-hand combat or, in his own inimitable fashion, clutching a steering wheel and gritting his teeth while his character guides cars through amazing jumps. Reynolds’ fellow Deliverance veteran, Ned Beatty, makes a fine foil, especially because Beatty defies expectations by underplaying his role—hidden behind thick glasses, with his portly frame bursting out of tight short-sleeve shirts, he’s a picture of heartless greed. The gut-punch score by Charles Bernstain jacks things up, as well, so White Lightning lives up to its name—it goes down smooth, then burns when it hits your system.
Reynolds let a few years lapse before returning to the character with Gator, which also represented the actor’s directorial debut. Essentially rehashing the narrative of the fist picture, but without the emotional pull of a murdered-relative angle, Gator finds our hero released from prison, again, to take down another corrupt lawman. What Gator lacks in originality, however, it makes up for in casting and production values. Country singer-turned-actor Jerry Reed gives great villain as smooth-talking redneck crook Bama McCall, chubby funnyman Jack Weston generates laughs as a sidekick prone to physical injury, and gap-toothed model-turned-actress Lauren Hutton lends glamour as Gator’s new love interest. (TV host and occasional actor Mike Douglas shows up in a minor role, too.) The sheer amount of property destruction in Gator is impressive, though the movie relies too heavily on spectacle since it can’t match the tension of its predecessor.
Oddly, the weakest link in Gator is Reynolds’ performance, because the actor veers too far into comedy. By this point sporting his signature moustache and demonstrating his gift for pratfalls and other slapstick silliness, Reynolds seems to occasionally forget he’s making a thriller. Sure, some viewers might find this take on Gator McCluskey more fun to watch than the grim characterization in White Lightning, but it’s worth nothing that Gator helped start Reynolds down the slippery slope into his goofy Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run movies. Gator’s worth a gander, since it’s hard to complain about a movie being too enjoyable, but it’s not as satisfying as the title character’s debut.
White Lightning: GROOVY