Retro Review: ‘Smokey and the Bandit’

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to see horror movie host/film critic Joe Bob Briggs present his famed lecture “How Rednecks Saved Hollywood”. Naturally, he discussed a number of the “hixploitation” and southern films of the 1970’s including a film every Southerner ranks among the greatest ever made, Smokey and the Bandit. This 1977 classic is seen as the pinnacle of the collaborations between stunt man/director Hal Needham and leading man/charisma machine Burt Reynolds.

Two Texas businessmen, Big Enos and Little Enos, want to celebrate the anticipated victory of the race car driver they are sponsoring in Atlanta. The beverage of choice for such an occasion is Coors, and to pick it up from Texarkana and deliver it to Atlanta in 28 hours, they need the best driver in the south, Bo Darville better known as “the Bandit”. With his rig driving sidekick “Snowman” they take off on their journey outwitting the police led by Sheriff Buford T. Justice aka “Smokey Bear”. Along the way, the Bandit picks up Carrie, who he dubs “Frog”, and together they takeoff in his iconic black Pontiac Trans Am.

In his autobiography, Billy Bob Thornton said for those of us who live in the south Smokey and the Bandit is a documentary. That speaks volumes to the authenticity of what this film captures. Despite the raucous action and fun car chases there is a realness to this flick that is instantly recognizable to those who know. As a man who has been accused many times of being a craft beer snob, I may not understand anyone wanting Coors bad enough to go through this much trouble, but I have seen firsthand that thrill many get from “bootlegging”. Perhaps the less said about that the better. This is about something bigger than a beer, which at the time one could not get east of Oklahoma, it is about Good Ol’ Boys following in the footsteps of those before them and driving fast and reckless to get illegal alcohol to a party while evading the cops.

The story is simple, the protagonist must get illegal beer from Point A to Point B. It does not need to be more complicated than this, as Smokey and the Bandit is a movie that thrives on style over substance. There are car chases, car wrecks, catchy music, quick humor (mostly deriving from Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Justice), and Burt Reynolds in his prime of coolness. Having a director in Hal Needham who has a background in stunt work pays off in spades for the Southern-Fried action comedy. In movies like White Lightning and the Longest Yard, Needham proved to be a wizard behind the wheel giving him the insight necessary to craft this automotive thrill ride. The director seems to have no problem taking the knowledge of his craft and blowing it up to the biggest scale possible. For proof of this look no further than the famed scene of the Bandit’s Trans Am effortlessly making the jump across a downed bridge while the cop cars in pursuit find themselves crashing in the creek bed below. Perhaps the unsung heroes of this movie are editors, Walter Hanneman and Angelo Ross. They cut together a flow that never misses a beat and never loses momentum. It is especially impressive considering most of the characters are interacting with one another over CB radio rather than being in the same location.

As mentioned before this movie belongs entirely to Burt Reynolds to carry with his effortless charisma and impressive mustache. He was already established as a bankable star of southern cinema by this point and always expressed his love for this particularly niche style of film. He was never shy about the fact that they were well made pictures that could be made on a low budget and were always guaranteed to be money-makers and crowd-pleasers thanks to the audience beneath the Mason Dixon line. Of his decades long career, the Bandit may be Reynolds’ most iconic role as this folk antihero gives him the perfect character to channel his charm and smart-assedness in equal parts. It helps that his supporting cast is at the top of their games as well. Both Sally Field and Jerry Reed are excellent sidekicks in this fast-paced beer run. Perhaps it is comedy legend Jackie Gleason who comes the closest to stealing the film from Reynolds and is the perfect foil as a blustering, arrogant southern lawman.

This is the kind of movie that radiates cool in every scene. A fast paced and hilarious race through the southern United States with one of the coolest antiheroes in film history. For those who are need of a cinematic good time, Smokey and the Bandit is possibly the best option.