Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Film Appreciation - Loaded Up and Truckin'

Cody Hamman had a long way to go and a short time to get there, bringing in this week's Film Appreciation for 1977 car chase comedy Smokey and the Bandit.

Jerry Reed's songs on the soundtrack give us some backstory on Bo "Bandit" Durville, a trucker who's "a legend to the old men, a hero to the child", but is now just making $25 a day to appear at a Truck Roadeo with a $5000 top prize. Rich father and son team Big and Little Enos arrive at the show to make Bandit an offer - they need him to go to Texarkana, Texas, pick up four hundred cases of Coors beer, and bring them back to Atlanta, Georgia. Big Enos is sponsoring a driver in the Southern Classic Truck Roadeo, and when he wins he wants to celebrate in style. The constraints on this beer run are legal - transporting Coors east of Texas was considered bootlegging then - and time - Enos needs his beer in twenty-eight hours. If Bandit succeeds, he'll get $80,000.

Bandit takes the challenge, buying a new Trans Am to run block for his semi, which he recruits his old friend Cledus "Snowman" Snow to drive, with Snow's basset hound Fred riding shotgun. They hit the road and make the nine hundred miles to Texarkana without much problem, the truck is loaded up with Coors within the first twenty minutes of the film. It's during the nine hundred miles back to Atlanta that things get troublesome.

Bandit picks up a runaway bride hitchhiker who he nicknames "Frog" and consequently gets Texas Sheriff Buford T. Justice and his son, who was Frog's groom-to-be, hot on his trail. Chases and extensive vehicular damage ensue.

Not far behind a certain space opera in the rankings, Smokey and the Bandit was one of the highest grossing films of 1977, when diesel fuel was 47 cents a gallon and the country was knee-deep in the CB craze. Bandit and Snowman aren't just helped out by fellow truck drivers, but by all kinds of folks, as everyone had a CB radio back then.

Burt Reynolds rocks his most famous and iconic role, with the ultimate screen mustache and a cowboy hat that he only takes off for one thing. Bandit has a great rapport with Snow, a very likeable guy played by country crooner Jerry Reed. Snow's interaction with his dog Fred is also very enjoyable, including a moment when he takes on a biker gang in a bar fight to protect his canine pal. A relatable moment, as I'd fight and get my ass kicked for my dog too.

Frog is played by a frisky Sally Field. Reynolds began dating her during filming, a choice I totally agree with.

The biggest laughs come from Sheriff Buford T. Justice as played by Jackie Gleason, who was given free rein to ad lib and come up with scene ideas. Full of loudmouth bravado and goofy vulgarity, he's thwarted by Bandit at every turn and stuck with his dimwitted son in the passenger seat of his police cruiser... which becomes less and less of a car over the course of the film.

The vehicle action in the film is great, which makes sense given that it was made by a veteran stuntman. Hal Needham had twenty years of a stunt career under his belt when he came up with the story for, and subsequently directed, Smokey and the Bandit. This was in the classic era of car stunts, long before CGI, with "real cars smashing into real cars, real dumb people driving", as Stuntman Mike put it in Death Proof.

Fast cars and country locations is a combination I enjoy, as previously covered in the Two-Lane Blacktop Worth Mentioning, and Smokey and the Bandit is probably where I first got that combo. This film was a staple of '80s/early '90s cable, and I remember watching it all the time with my maternal grandmother when she would babysit me. The film fell out of my viewing rotation for a while until the late '90s when, while staying with my paternal grandmother in a different state, I bought the movie on VHS. Thinking back, I don't remember watching this movie with anyone else other than my grandmothers. With the comedy and the crashes, it's the rare type of film that can be enjoyed by a grandmother and a grandson equally. It had been another while since I had watched the movie before I viewed it again on Netflix for this appreciation article, and I really need to fix that.

The characters and action are a lot of fun, Burt Reynolds is at his onscreen coolest, Sally Field is super cute, and Jackie Gleason had me laughing so hard that I had tears in my eyes. Time to buy the DVD and get this film back to regular viewing status.

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