How to Sink a Career in Six Easy Steps: A Tribute to the Films of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham (part 1 of 8)
Welcome to this retrospective of every movie Burt Reynolds made with director Hal Needham: Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, Smokey and the Bandit Part II, The Cannonball Run, Stroker Ace, and Cannonball Run II, all starring Burt Reynolds, his ego, and pretty much every actor in Hollywood.
Given the sheer breadth of this article, I will not be recapping each movie in full. Partly because it would take too long, but mainly because I treasure my sanity.
Also, these films don’t really lend themselves to drawn out recaps, as there are only so many ways to describe nonexistent plotlines, endless stunts, egotistical actors, and shamelessly gratuitous cameos. Instead, this will be more of a high-level overview of Burt Reynolds in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, and his seemingly pathologically stupid career choices.
Back in the ‘70s, there were two top dogs at the box office: Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. Both were tall and charismatic, with winning screen personas and a knack for getting their fans to watch just about anything starring them, regardless of quality.
While Clint managed to have a wildly successful acting and directing career that still thrives to this day, Burt has not been quite so lucky. A series of bad decisions and personal problems have made the man an unfortunate afterthought.
Burt first made waves in the early ‘70s with Deliverance, and hits such as The Longest Yard made him a cinematic icon. In 1973, he made White Lightning, his first “good ol’ boy car chase” picture. It was a pretty damn good flick, and the sequel, which Reynolds directed, followed three years later. The following year, he teamed with stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham for Smokey and the Bandit.
A smash hit, they teamed up the next year for Hooper… and then the wheels began to fall off. A sequel to Smokey and the Bandit was a success for them (despite being terrible), as was The Cannonball Run, but the duo hit a brick wall in 1983 with Stroker Ace. An attempt to regain the magic came in 1984 with Cannonball Run II, but by then the damage was done. Reynolds would appear in City Heat with Clint Eastwood later that year, and while I personally dig the movie, pretty much nobody else does. I think even Clint isn’t too wild about it.
Since then, Burt Reynolds has had middling success, with only Boogie Nights reminding people that the man can actually act. Of course, he fired his agent after that movie, and has done pretty much nothing else of note since. Unless you consider working for Uwe Boll to be noteworthy, in which case you’re a rather odd person. Not bad, necessarily, just odd.
The six movies Burt did with Hal Needham are interesting to look at simply as a way of charting the decline of a major movie star’s popularity. Lord knows they’re not good for much else. The discs make nice Frisbees though, and if you’re a cheap bastard, the cases are more than adequate coasters.
Let’s begin in 1977, when Burt had some dignity and self respect, Hal Needham had a reasonably good reputation, and Sally Field was kind of cute.
In the beginning, there was a Trans Am: Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
It all began with an idea that former stuntman Hal Needham had while making the movie Gator with Burt Reynolds. Initially intended to be a low budget B-movie with Jerry Reed in the lead, Reynolds signed onto the project, and Reed ended up in a supporting role. Jackie Gleason and Sally Field were also cast, and Gleason was given free reign, as one would expect given his stature as one of the funniest comics of all time.
The movie was a surprise hit that gave Needham a directing career, Field a career outside of television, Gleason a great supporting role, and Reynolds a shitload of money.
The plot concerns a challenge from Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick and Paul Williams) to Bo “Bandit” Darville (Burt) that entails a 28-hour marathon driving session to pick up 400 cases of Coors beer, take them across a region of the south where it was considered bootlegging at the time, and deliver them to a race that the father and son will be attending the next day.
They approach Bandit at a truck rodeo. Yes, a truck rodeo. It’s spelled “Roadeo” on the sign, because when you have a dumb idea, it’s good to have the thing be spelled dumb, too. Makes for good synergy.
It’s here that we get the first appearance of the high pitched “Burt Reynolds chick laugh”. According to the special edition DVD, the laugh was completely spontaneous, and to be fair, it comes off that way here. It won’t be spontaneous as we move on, but screw it, it is here, dammit!
Reynolds is his usual likable smartass self here, perfectly in line with his standard ‘70s persona. The key word here is “likable”. You should remember that, because Burt sure as hell didn’t.
The Burdettes make their pitch and Bandit accepts, getting them to fork over the cash for the beer and a new car. We next meet Cletus (Jerry Reed) AKA Snowman, who will be driving the truck while Bandit provides support for him in his car.
And what a car it is; an absolutely gorgeous black Pontiac Trans Am. Our duo picks up the beer and begins their run as the song “Eastbound and Down” plays, sung by Reed.
Early in the run, Bandit picks up Carrie (Sally Field), a runaway bride, and as luck would have it, the groom she’s running away from is the doltish son (Mike Henry) of Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Field is surprisingly likable (for me, at least; I can barely stand her post-Oscar work) and of course, Gleason is a laugh riot. As noted earlier, he was given plenty of room to do his thing, and it shows, as he’s consistently brilliant for the entire time he’s on screen.
The rest of the film is divided between Bandit and Carrie’s romance (in which she’s nicknamed “Frog”, which I suppose beats being called “Monkey”), Sheriff Justice and his obsessive pursuit of them, and some really great stunt work. All in all, it’s a fun, harmless action comedy that was another feather in Burt Reynolds’s hat.
It would also become the template for the next five films he made with Hal Needham: Smartass Reynolds character, tons of stunts, and very little in the way of plot.
Sign number one you are watching a redneck ‘70s car chase movie: tons of CB lingo.
Gleason’s first scene is a wonderful bit of comedy, as he perfectly shows the sort of man Buford is with a few simple movements and some funny lines. There’s a very good reason he was called “The Great One”.
Sally Field is surprisingly funny, even when the script just requires her to get out of a wedding dress in the passenger seat of a muscle car doing 110.
The diner scene between Gleason and Reynolds wasn’t in the original script. It was Gleason’s idea and like most* of his other ideas throughout his career, it was a damn good one.
[*The man agreed to do not only Smokey and the Bandit Part II, but also Part III and The Sting Part II in the same year, so nobody’s perfect.]
The old “driver switching seats with the passenger while the car is moving” routine is interesting to see when done by a 5’11 man and a 5’2 woman, and surprisingly difficult.
There’s a great Gleason line after a truck shears off the driver’s side door of his car, and he tells his son to put it in the car. Being something of a dullard, the guy has it in the front seat on his lap.
I’m not sure why the film felt the need to have Cletus get the shit kicked out of him by some bikers in a diner. I guess they needed to cut away to something while Bandit and Carrie are getting romantic with each other. Not a huge thing, but it does sort of bring things down a little.
Happily, the continuous disintegration of Gleason’s car is a constant source of delight. It begins with the roof being sheared off, and eventually it’s barely hanging onto its frame. Good stuff.
A line at the end has our trio heading to Boston to get the Burdettes some clam chowder, which would have been a hell of a lot better than the actual sequel we got, which I’ll be getting to in a bit, unfortunately.
In the end, Smokey and the Bandit is one of the best car films of all time, and a fun, mindless chunk of entertainment. It’s Hal Needham’s best movie, which doesn’t bode well for me, since I have five more movies to go.