In 1977, two blockbusters took the box-office by storm. One gave birth to a franchise that endures to this day; the other begat two dud sequels. One has a legacy that is felt throughout the industry; the other has escaped the modern zeitgeist. Although history deems it the lesser blockbuster, there is still much to appreciate about Hal Needham’s action-comedy.
A truck driver known as “the Bandit” (Burt Reynolds) has been approached to illegally transport a load of beer from Texas to a fairground in Atlanta, Georgia, for the sum of $80,000. To avert the potential attention of any authorities, Bandit will be driving a Pontiac Trans-Am Firebird, while his friend Cletus (Jerry Reed) follows behind with the truckload of beer – should the police take an interest in their convoy, then Bandit shall distract them with his car-based erraticism.
Two factors prove a thorn in Bandit’s plan. The first is Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), a short-tempered policeman who is incessant in his pursuit of the Trans-Am; the second is a runaway bride (Sally Field) who is very keenly given a lift by the Bandit. Between the bride’s candour and the Sheriff’s determination, Bandit is left with little chance of delivering the beer before it goes cold, but he does get to partake in some entertaining, highway-based shenanigans.
Smokey and the Bandit is synonymous with two things: the Pontiac Trans-Am Firebird, and Burt Reynolds. The latter is an ideal leading man, with his moustache, Stetson and laidback attitude all providing him with an unmatched coolness – at least, as far as the Seventies are concerned. As for the former, it comes ever-so-close to matching Reynolds for awe-power, looking great in every scene. While both elements helped Smokey and the Bandit to look cool, there are plenty of other reasons to appreciate the film.
Reynolds’ fellow actors may not share his star-power, but they do have the talent to match. This is especially the case for Sally Field, who went on to prove her credentials with multiple awards for other projects; here she is nothing but likeable in the role of Bandit’s love-interest. Jerry Reed is a delight as Cletus, not getting near the screen-time he deserves, while veteran comic Jackie Gleason goes out of his way to make viewers despise Sheriff Justice in an otherwise delectable performance.
As an action-comedy, Smokey and the Bandit delivers. The action is provided in the form of car chases, with the Pontiac being front-and-centre of each one; the comedy, meanwhile, is far funnier than this reviewer anticipated it would be. Adding to both is a country soundtrack – one that includes songs such as “The Legend” and “East Bound and Down” – that perfectly suits the film’s southern setting. With that said, contemporary audiences may deem all these aspects only serviceable, and a certain other movie is to thank for that.
Smokey and the Bandit was released in American cinemas on May 19th, 1977; barely a week later, George Lucas’ Star Wars had its nationwide release, going on to become the highest-grossing release of all-time – a record that would not be usurped until two decades later. Star Wars was unlike anything else seen at the time, with its masterful use of special effects and a rousing score changing the way Hollywood produces films forever. Thus, its counterpart was left looking rather cheap and unremarkable.
Although Smokey had to make-do with being the second-most popular film of that year, it still earned $126 million during its theatrical run, the equivalent of half-a-billion in today’s money. There is some debate as to why the film was so successful – some say it was clever counter-programming, others suggest that the two movies benefited from each other’s presence. Whatever the case, the tactic worked, with Universal utilising it again for both sequels.
Smokey and the Bandit may not be technically impressive, but there’s no denying how much fun it is. Possessing bountiful charm, a likeable cast and plenty of automotive hijinks, the film has truly earned its status as a cult classic.