Friday, June 2, 2017

SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT: 40th Anniversary Blu-ray (Universal 1977) Universal Home Video

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 humor in this one premise dumb show about a cocky lady’s man who smuggles beer across state lines on a well-paid dare. The film is heavily laden with just about every heavy-handed cliché; from the simpleton Southerner recognized in Saturday morning Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, to the dipsy-doodle ‘good ole boy’ buddy/buddy bromantic chemistry that makes imbecilic morons of us all. I can feel my I.Q. dropping as I write this review. ‘Ah, shucks, Ellie Mae. Somebody done gone and shot Mr. Ed!’ Smokey and the Bandit is oft mis-credited as the movie that inspired The Dukes of Hazzard TV series. Actually, a 1975 TV movie, Moonrunners is owed this honor, although the overwhelming popularity of Smokey and the Bandit undoubtedly convinced television executives there was an international market for such corn-fed bucolic tripe peddled ad nauseam 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 go-for-the-crotch one liners sandwiched in between one very overwrought 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 this brash bootlegging scenario.
Despite my inherent love/hate relationship with this movie, the cultural impact of Smokey and The Bandit cannot be ignored; the second highest grossing movie of the year, runner up only to Star Wars and spawning a ‘tradition’ of hick flicks that not only catapulted Burt Reynolds to international stardom but also created a minor cottage industry for stories – however untrue - about ‘regular folk’. The mentoring between Reynolds and director, Hal Needham echoes the lifelong apprenticeship between John Wayne and John Ford; arguably, without all the built-in animosity and with Reynolds, unlike Wayne, decidedly possessing the upper hand. Needham, an Arkansas sharecropper’s son arrived in Hollywood as Reynolds’ stunt double. After Needham’s wife kicked him out of their house, he showed up on the rising star’s doorstep to ask for a few days stay to collect his thoughts. Needham ended up living with Reynolds for the next eleven years during which he wrote the first few drafts of Smokey’s screenplay. At the time, Reynolds did not think much of the plot but agreed to star in it, provided Universal put Needham in the director’s chair. They did and the rest, as they still say, is history.
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. However, Big Enos has ulterior motives, 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 barefoot and pregnant woman wants? So Snowman and Bandit are off to Texarkana to pick up their shipment of Coors, along with Snowman’s bloodshot-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 our story and the memorable lines from here on do not go to Burt Reynolds ‘butch’ racer, 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. How sweet it is, indeed, to see Gleason here, at the top of his game as the portly and persnickety sheriff, perennially exacerbated by the one man to whom all his arsenal is useless. Gleason’s lawman is really the more fascinating character in this extended travelogue through the backwaters of five states; a pompous, maniacal, thoroughly 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 a 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 from various law enforcement divisions, the Bandit and Carrie find a brief respite, 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 makeshift metal 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 championing and taking bets on the Bandit’s success against an increasingly insurmountable army 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 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. In retrospect, Burt Reynolds has described Smokey and the Bandit as an ice cream sundae of a movie – good while it’s on the screen but with zero staying power afterward. Frankly, that is a glowing assessment. Despite some impressive stunt work and a few minor chuckles along the way, Smokey and the Bandit has dated rather insincerely. Its Southern caricatures are more insulting than quaint. Forget political correctness. The picture’s laissez faire attitude toward just about everything else feels as foreign as 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 Gleason 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 on-screen chemistry. In fact, they dated briefly during the making of this film. Fields is the true spirit of the movie; funny without trying to be, and uncomplicated in her approach to what is essentially a very easy gal to understand at a glance.
I had a harder time trying to assess Burt Reynolds’ enduring popularity as a matinee idol based on his performance in this film. The picture is second rate; but even so, Reynolds gives us a third rate turn as ‘Bandit’ that most any player of his generation could have delivered blindfolded. It’s not entirely Burt’s blunder. The screenplay does not afford Reynolds a lot of playtime after the initial set up; instead, a clever camouflage of a few well-placed lines – interplay/foreplay 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 are left with is a race/chase popcorn plugger that no longer satisfies the basics – even as a playful diversion from the mundane.
It’s really odd to find Universal offering up a third incarnation of Smokey and the Bandit on Blu-ray. The master appears to be the same as the Universal 100th Anniversary edition from 2012 with a marginally improved encode. Can this mean Uni is finally getting serious about its back catalog? Hardly. We still have the same transfer: eye-popping colorful but with grain digital scrubbed and homogenized. Mercifully, this transfer shows off oodles of fine detail; albeit, with some mild built-in edge enhancement. Contrast is bang on and the image has been nicely cleaned up; no age-related artifacts. We get 2 English audio options: 5.1 and 2.0 DTS. The big plus herein: for the first time we have the original soundtrack. The 5.1, ported over from the 2012 release contains the re-imagined SFX. While more prominent, it doesn’t sound anything like Smokey and the Bandit did in 1977. So the 2.0 is a revelation, limited in its dynamic range but nevertheless, delivering a sonic ambiance better suited to the images on the screen. Extras, save one, have all been ported over from the previous 100th Anniversary release and include Loaded Up and Truckin’: Making Smokey and the Bandit featurette, the Snowman, What’s Your 20?: The Smokey and the Bandit CB Tutorial featurette and two promotional featurettes: 100 Years of Universal: The 70's and 100 Years of Universal: The Lot.
The best reason to repurchase Smokey and the Bandit is The Bandit, an 87 min. documentary that covers the movie’s ‘cultural context’ as well as the career-spanning friendship between Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds. Like all intelligently made documentaries, this one begins with a single premise, but then builds out to cover more territory and back stories; the lives of professional stuntmen, the popularization of truckin’ and CB culture; the fantastic trajectory of Burt Reynolds’ acting career and possible explanations as to why it so quickly derailed. The Bandit is a heartfelt endeavor that perfectly captures the camaraderie, insanity, highs and lows of such commando-styled ‘on location’ picture-making; the usual ‘talking head’ interviews taking a welcomed backseat to a ton of archival backstage footage, most of it never before seen. It’s actually more than a bit of a shock to contrast the Burt Reynolds featured in these vintage outtakes, gum-chewing, winking and with that flash of sexy slyness about his grin, ego run amuck, intercut with present-day Reynolds, looking deathly fragile and soft-spoken; his recollections now out of touch with the cocky one-man army of pure chutzpah strutting behind the scenes and bragging about his mirrored bedrooms. 
Refreshing too to see Needham frankly amusing and musing about the endurance of a picture he regarded as no better than a Looney Tunes caper. I have to admit, The Bandit gave me a newfound respect for Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham, if not for their most enduring creation made together. Bottom line: while I still do not care for this movie, I can certainly recommend this Blu-ray. Now, if we could just get Universal to give us hi-def transfers of Cry Freedom, a remastered Fried Green Tomatoes, The Secret of My Success, House Sitter, Flower Drum Song, Sweet Charity, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Who Done It?, The Time of Their Lives, Hold That Ghost, The Lost Weekend, My Little Chickadee, Destry Rides Again, Winchester 73, Shenandoah, Tammy and the Bachelor, Six Weeks...
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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