Hal Needham’s Smokey and the Bandit (1977) isn’t so much a movie as it is a four minute plot point woefully stretched to accommodate an hour and a half film. I must be getting old, but I don’t seem to find the humour in this one premise dumb show about a cocky lady’s man who smuggles beer on a well-paid dare. The film is heavily influenced by just about every cliché of the simpleton southerner we’ve come to recognize from Saturday morning Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. It’s often mis-credited as the movie that inspired The Dukes of Hazzard TV series. Actually, a 1975 TV movie, Moonrunners is owed that honour, although the overwhelming popularity of Smokey and the Bandit undoubtedly convinced television executives that there was an international market for stories about the ‘simple’ folk.
Yet, in Smokey and the Bandit there is not a bright bulb among these dead-headed yokels. James Lee Barrett, Charles Shyer and Alan Mandel’s screenplay is nothing more than a very loose claptrap of one liners sandwiched in between one very lengthy and utterly improbable cross country car chase. The…uh…premise is at least based in fact. At the time, Coors beer could not be distributed in certain states west of the Mississippi River, thereby adding an edgy danger to the bootlegging scenario.
Burt Reynolds is Bo ‘Bandit’ Darville – an ambitionless, Teflon-coated, adrenaline junkie trucker who is more than content to live the life of a carny sideshow attraction, provided he can find rich dummies to finance his passion for fast cars. At present his flunkies are Big Enos (Pat McCormick) and Little Enos Burdette (Paul Williams) – father and son Texas wheeler-dealers who pay the Bandit $80,000 just to haul a truckload of Coors in twenty-eight hours from Texarkana to the Southern Classic in Georgia for their personal refreshment. Big Enos has ulterior motives, however, secretly hoping he can end the Bandit’s lucky streak with this daredevil bet.
Bandit accepts the challenge; then ropes his good buddy Cledus ‘Snowman’ Snow (Jerry Reed) into coming along for the ride. Cledus lives with his wife Waynette (Linda McClure) and their gaggle of unruly kids. Waynette doesn’t want Cledus to go. But since when does a good ol’ boy ever listen to anything his gal wants? So Snowman and Bandit are off to Texarkana to pick up their shipment of Coors, along with Snowman’s blood-shot eyed Basset Hound, Fred.
The better half of the title refers to ‘Smokey’ the CB slang for highway patrolmen. So, it’s perhaps little wonder that the bulk of the story and the memorable lines from here on do not go to Burt Reynolds character but to Sheriff Buford T. Justice of Portague County – especially when the latter is played by one of the all-time great comedians, Jackie Gleason. Gleason’s lawman is really the more fascinating character in this extended travelogue through the backwaters of five states; a pompous, maniacal, ridiculous and frustrated bigot who uses the law to his own purpose, though not to his advantage. Truth is - Justice just can’t win.
Bandit purchases a Trans Am to drive as a ‘blocker’ – deflecting attention away from the truck and its cargo. The drive from Georgia to Texas is without incident. Bandit and Snowman break into the warehouse, load up their cargo in record time and begin their trek back to Georgia. (Aside: except for a few brief scenes reshot in California, the production never left Georgia and was primarily shot in and around the cities of McDonough, Jonesboro, and Lithonia.) Unfortunately, on a lonely country road Bandit nearly runs over runaway bride, Carrie (Sally Fields) a professional dancer who has just escaped a loveless marriage to the Sheriff’s ineffectual dull-headed son, Jr. (Mike Henry).
Without even knowing who she is, Bandit decides to take Carrie with him. She jumps in the back of his car, changes out of her wedding dress and then proceeds to tell him everything about her life. The two flirt, are coy, yet frank in their assessment of each other, but obviously destined to fall in love before the final fadeout. Of course, none of this makes any sense at all. Still, after some harrowing road races with the Sheriff and other members of various law enforcement divisions, the Bandit and Carrie find a brief moment to drive into the woods and make love. Ho-hum. Whatever.
Without Bandit to run cover for him, Snowman gets pulled over by a state trooper. But before he is even asked to show his manifest, Snowman is saved by Bandit who does some pretty snazzy stunt work to encourage the trooper to follow him instead. The Bandit, Snowman, Carrie – whom Bandit has since nicknamed ‘Frog’ – the Sheriff and his son race through the backwoods of Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, along the way coming in contact with some pretty lurid characters, like prostitute Foxy Lady (Ingeborg Kjeldsen) who lures Smokeys into her brothel; a mental trailer parked near the highway. Bandit and Snowman discover they have an entire network of good buddies manning their CBs along the interstate – all of them encouraging the Bandit’s success against an increasingly insurmountable arsenal of police officers who haven’t the collective brain trust between them to power a siren.
Bandit, Snowman and Carrie arrive at the Southern Classic with ten minutes to spare. Big Enos tells Bandit he can have his payoff now, or double it by accepting a new challenge – to bring back some clam chowder from Boston in eighteen hours. Bandit accepts the wager and the trio hop into one of Big Enos’ Cadillacs. Justice, who has never met Bandit face to face, contacts him via CB, unaware that the two are parked only a few feet apart from each other. At first Bandit describes himself as Big Enos, then reasons that Justice has been ‘too good a man’ for this feeble lie and instead tells him to look over his shoulder. Bandit, Snowman and Carrie take off on their next challenge together with Justice in hot pursuit, leaving Jr. to chase after his daddy’s car on foot.
Smokey and the Bandit is lowbrow to ‘no brow’ entertainment at best; dumb fun for those who don’t expect much from their movies and will therefore not be disappointed by this ridiculous waste of an hour and a half. Reynolds reportedly thought the script the dumbest he had ever read, but did the film as a favour to Needham, whom he admired. Reynolds has described Smokey and the Bandit as an ice cream sundae of a film – good while it’s on the screen but with zero staying power afterward. Frankly, that’s a glowing assessment. Despite some impressive stunt work and a few minor chuckles along the way, Smokey and the Bandit has dated rather badly. Its southern caricatures are more insulting than quaint, its laissez faire attitude toward just about everything else, really feeling as though it’s from another planet.
Originally, Needham aimed to make Smokey and the Bandit as a B-movie starring Jerry Reed. Regrettably, it still has the B-movie stank about it, just on a bigger budget and with bigger stars. Jackie Gleanson is obviously having the most fun, adlibbing a lot of his lines including the one that yours truly found mildly amusing. After Jr. repeatedly disappoints his father, Sheriff Justice suggests “There’s no way, - no way – that you came from my loins. Soon as I get home, first thing I’m gonna do is punch yo’ mama in da mouth!” Okay, so it isn’t politically correct. But in the context of the moment I found myself with a thin grin spreading across my face.
Reportedly, Universal was unenthused by Needham’s request to have Sally Fields as the ‘love interest’ because they felt she was not ‘sexy’. But Fields is a brilliant actress who manages to internalize ‘sexiness’ and bring it out without more obvious effects. She and Burt Reynolds have palpable chemistry and, in fact, dated briefly during the making of this film. I have a harder time assessing Burt Reynolds’ enduring popularity as a matinee idol from his performance in this film. It’s second rate. The screenplay doesn’t afford Reynolds a lot of playtime either after the initial set up, but rather a clever camouflage of a few well-placed lines - interplay between Bandit and Carrie – wedged between the stunt work/car chases – obviously driven by someone else. In the final analysis, when the dust settles on Smokey and the Bandit what we’re left with is a race/chase popcorn filler that, at least in this reviewer’s opinion, no longer satisfies the basics for that playful diversion from the mundane.
Ah, but there’s good news for those who can’t live without this movie on Blu-ray. Universal Home Video has done another bang up job on this 1080p transfer. My admiration for the studio has grown considerably in this past year. After a few misfires, they’ve gone back to the drawing board and aggressively launched a 100th Anniversary celebration in hi-def that ought to be the envy of every other studio. We’re getting a lot of catalogue product from Universal in a year when just about all the other majors have lost interest in catalogue Blu-ray, except for a thin trickle down of a few titles. Warner Brothers? Fox? Paramount? Are you boy’s even listening?
Smokey and the Bandit looks fabulous on Blu-ray. The 1080p image is very impressive, with colours that pop, contrast levels that impress and fine details evident throughout. There is one or two brief scenes that appear softly focused. Film grain is, at times, quite prominent, but very accurately displayed, giving the image a very vintage 70s feel. I really like the way this transfer looked. It sounded even better in DTS 5.1 – the ballads and pop tunes rocking the side and rear speakers, the effects and dialogue very nicely integrated and sounding crisp and clean. Extras include a course in CB lingo, a fairly comprehensive ‘making of’ documentary, and two new 100th Anniversary featurettes; one on Universal film making in the 1970s, the other on the studio’s venerable backlot and its illustrious history. Bottom line: while I didn’t care for the movie, I can certainly recommend this Blu-ray. Now, if we could just get Universal to give us hi-def transfers of Schindler's List, Cry Freedom, Fried Green Tomatoes, Rear Window, The Birds, Vertigo, The Secret of My Success, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, House Sitter, Flower Drum Song, Sweet Charity, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Sixteen Candles, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Who Done It?, The Time of Their Lives, Hold That Ghost, My Little Chickadee, Destry Rides Again, Winchester 73, Shenandoah, Tammy and the Bachelor, Death Becomes Her, Six Weeks, Sophie's Choice, On Golden Pond, The Funhouse...
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)