Friday, March 11, 2011

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

          Probably the most popular of the innumerable trucker flicks that blazed across American movie screens in the late ’70s, this Burt Reynolds hit was the No. 2 box-office success of 1977, topped only by Star Wars. On one level, it’s not hard to see why audiences embraced the action-packed comedy, because it delivers almost nonstop juvenile amusement through car crashes, cartoonish characters, and curse words—to say nothing of rebelliousness and then-trendy CB jargon. However, laughing at Smokey and the Bandit is a bit like laughing at the bad kid in high school who shoots spitballs when the teacher isn’t looking: You know it isn’t really funny, but you can’t help smiling every so often by reflex.
          The directorial debut of veteran stuntman Hal Needham, Smokey and the Bandit tells the silly story of a quest to illegally transport a truckload of beer across state lines in the Deep South. Bandit (Reynolds) drives a hot black Firebird Trans Am as a “blocker” for his trucker pal, Snowman (Jerry Reed), meaning it’s Bandit’s job to drive so fast that cops chase him while Snowman’s rig cruises by unnoticed. When Bandit picks up a sexy runaway bride, Carrie (Sally Field), he also picks up a persistent pursuer: redneck sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), father of the schnook Carrie left at the altar. Therefore most of the movie cuts between scenes of Bandit and Carrie getting frisky and scenes of Justice and his idiot son zooming down the highway in a police car that gets demolished piece by piece as the movie progresses.
          Needham’s daring auto stunts are fun for those who dig that sort of thing (cars soaring over rivers, crashing onto the backs of flatbed trucks, and so on), and Gleason aims for the cheap seats with a stereotypical performance (he shouts things like, “Nobody makes Sheriff Buford T. Justice look like a possum’s pecker!”). Gleason’s characterization would be unbearable if the actor wasn’t blessed with such meticulous timing, although it’s a bummer to see “The Great One” saddled with not-great material. Beyond Gleason’s shtick and the highway high jinks, the most appealing aspect of the movie is the easygoing dynamic between Field and Reynolds (who were an offscreen couple at the time), and the similarly loose buddy-movie vibe between Reynolds and country-singer-turned-actor Reed.
          Plus, there’s no denying that when he made this picture, Reynolds epitomized a certain ideal of über-’70s macho swagger—he’s like a never-ending party crammed into a lean, 5’ 11’ frame. After the huge success of Smokey and the Bandit, Reynolds’ comedies mostly devolved into uninspired variations on a theme (like 1980’s awful Smokey and the Bandit II), so it’s interesting to study this flick as the moment when he simultaneously perfected his good-ol’-boy act and began squandering audience goodwill by generating lackluster product that was probably more fun to make than it is to watch.

Smokey and the Bandit: FUNKY


Will Errickson said...

Would be unwatchable if it weren't for the delightful Ms. Field.

Kevin Mac said...

Norm MacDonald's snickering, gum-snapping Burt on SNL's Jeopardy parodies BR's banter in this film perfectly.