Thursday 7 July 2011

Movie Review: Smokey And The Bandit (1977)

With the real United States grappling with the 1973 oil embargo, high prices at the pump, and lower speed limits on the freeways, and with Detroit down-tuning the power out of previously muscular cars, Hollywood and television hatched a sub-genre of comic highway escapism: a fantasy world where there are no traffic jams, the road is empty, winding and just waiting to be driven at top speed, the hero has no worries about the price of gas, cars and trucks have unlimited power, complete amazing stunts, and are wrecked with wild abandon -- and no one gets hurt.

Gone In 60 Seconds (1974), Smokey And The Bandit plus all its sequels; Convoy (1978); The Blues Brothers (1980); The Cannonball Run (1981) and its sequel all followed the same formula, while on television, the The Dukes of Hazzard and B.J. and the Bear made sure that the car chases continued at home.

The movies made a lot of money and established Burt Reynolds as a star of mindless action fare. Smokey And The Bandit may have been among the better examples of the relatively short-lived trend, but that is definitely not saying much. Reynolds is the Bandit, a legendary driver hired to mastermind an illegal high speed beer run across state lines in the deep South. Bandit elects to pilot a black Pontiac Trans Am with gold trim, as a "blocking" car for the cargo truck to be driven by his friend Snowman (Jerry Reed), which means that Bandit attracts the police cars and distracts them from pulling over and inspecting the illegal cargo of the speeding truck behind him.

All seems to be going well until Bandit picks up the runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field). Unfortunately, her never-to-be father-in-law is the buffoonish Texas Sheriff  Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), or Smokey as all police officers are called by truckers. The chase is on, with Smokey and his idiot son driving after the Bandit and Carrie for mile after endless mile, not caring about the illegal beer shipment, just wanting to rescue the family's honour from the disgrace brought upon them by Carrie, now nicknamed Frog by Bandit and his pals on CB Radio.

Smokey And The Bandit was directed by Hal Needham, who also helped to create the story. Needham was a former Hollywood stuntman, and all of Smokey And The Bandit is an excuse to engineer and execute a variety of car and truck stunts, including a famous leap by the Trans Am across a destroyed bridge. Pontiac donated the vehicles used for the movie, knowing full well that Trans Am sales would skyrocket if the movie was a success, which it was.

The movie is undoubtedly kinetic and entertaining, and the cinematography featuring photogenic vehicles carving up highways and dirt roads is hypnotically watchable. The real stars of the movie are the cars and trucks rather than humans: Reynolds barely acts, coasting through the movie with a series of bland expressions under his cowboy hat and behind his moustache. Gleason's Sheriff Justice is a spluttering comic book character on par with the sophistication of Elmer Fudd. Sally Field is the only acting bright spot in the movie, bringing to Frog a pleasantly spunky spark that survives the careening steel and squealing tires all around her.

The soundtrack of 1970s country and western music provides immediate reminders about the worst of both the decade and the genre, although the hit song Eastbound and Down, written and performed by Reed, has an undeniable charm to it.

Smokey And The Bandit has its foot on the floor and its brain on idle. As long as that combination is acceptable, entertainment is served.

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