At one point in U.S. pop culture, redneck mania was all the rage. During the late 1970s, C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” was the number one song in America, The Dukes of Hazzard became the most popular TV show on the airwaves and Burt Reynolds’ Smokey and the Bandit emerged a gigantic hit. How big? After Star Wars, it was the second biggest smash of 1977 (actually, I question this, as the same year’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Saturday Night Fever were in theaters even longer but leave the nerdy movie trivia to me).
Reynolds was one of the most popular movie stars of the ’70s and Smokey and the Bandit was the monster success that put him over the top. The film itself, directed by stuntman legend Hal Needham, is still a kick even though it turns 40 this year.
Reynolds stars as the Bandit, an outlaw declared a “legend” by his underground fan base of Citizens Band (CB) radio fanatics. The Bandit is offered $80,000 to drive a truck containing 400 bootlegged cases of Coors from Texas to Georgia (the beverage used to be illegal east of the Rockies). Along with his truck drivin’ buddy “Snowman” (played by country star Jerry Reed), a basset hound, a runaway bride (Sally Field) and a turbo-charged Pontiac Trans Am, the Bandit powers through speed traps and evades multiple law enforcers. When he crosses paths with the repulsive and persistent Texas sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), a cross-country chase ensues.
Reynolds exudes an easy going charm and so does the movie. He and Fields (who was just escaping TV infamy as The Flying Nun) have genuine chemistry and movie star glamour. While Reynolds plays a pretty boy narcissist all too well, Fields carries the movie the same way Sandra Bullock stole Speed from Keanu Reeves. Gleason, the TV comedy legend once referred to correctly as “The Great One,” is also in fine form as Justice. The role is ridiculous but Gleason (appearing tan, robust and happy to steal every scene he’s in) makes the character loathsome and hilarious.
There’s a line early on in Smokey and the Bandit where Reed declares he’s gone to “redneck heaven.” This is exactly where I suspect the movie takes place, as we’re in for 90 minutes of cheesy CB radio lingo, thrilling car chases, smash ups and banjo music. None of this is remotely PC, as there are midget jokes, sexist quips and (of course) the Bandit’s car sports a Confederate flag license plate. But Smokey and the Bandit also has a surprising number of black actors (like George Reynolds) who play intelligent, non-stereotypical characters, which wasn’t a given in this era.
It’s all very corny but fast and full of real-deal, CGI-free auto stunts and smash-ups. There’s a surprising scene in the first hour where the Bandit stops at a greasy spoon diner and Justice, who has never seen the Bandit, sits down next to him and starts talking story. It’s the film’s funniest scene and gives us the clearest idea of what this movie actually is: a live-action Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoon.
Smokey and the Bandit is a relic but still a highly influential, exciting ride that rarely slows down. It’s also better than any of its sequels, Reynolds’ later Cannonball Run movies and scores of rip-offs. In fact, you may have heard of the film franchise this obviously inspired, the one with the words “Fast” and “Furious” in the titles.
Smokey and the Bandit plays Sunday, May 21 and Wednesday, May 24 at the Maui Mall Megaplex at 2pm and 7pm.