Letterboxd Review: Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

As a tribute to the late great Burt Reynolds, the next few weeks of Letterboxd reviews featured here will be a deep dive into three different stages of the man's career.

The summer of 1977 was the biggest box office shindig imaginable. Many movie fans of the right age will be quick to tell you where they saw Star Wars, how many times, and how long they waited in line. But they have probably forgotten how many times they went back to the drive-in to watch Smokey and the Bandit out of sheer boredom and a lack of new TV shows. It's not necessarily the first, but it sure is the prototypical "good ol' boy" twentieth-century cowboy picture. That means eighteen-wheeler trucks. That means CB radios. That means country music, hush-puppies, and a sense of boyish outlaw fun. Much like how Star Wars heralded a return to throwback space operas and serials like "Battlestar Galactica" and the 1980 Flash Gordon film, once this movie landed, the genre took off with contemporaries like 1978's Convoy and Any Which Way But Loose, or the 1979 premiere of hit show "The Dukes of Hazzard."

This is such a remarkably watchable movie. It's got the same visceral feeling of watching old home movies, it's stuck in time and place in more a comforting way than a sad or pitiful way. I sometimes have trouble with movies from the 1970s, because that was a funky era where filmmakers were able to push the boundaries on what a standard run time was, meanwhile not all of them had graduated from the much slower pacing of films in the 1960s. Just go back and watch a James Bond movie from the '60s. You get to watch as Sean Connery steps off a plane, grabs his bags, tips a steward, and walks agonizingly slowly toward the exit, across a large bland lobby. It takes about five minutes. Thankfully, Smokey and the Bandit is a blessed 96 minutes, it's paced nice and brisk thanks to some strategic time jumps and montages, and the plot is essentially a race across the American South, causing the dialogue and car chase photography to piggyback on the urgency and simplicity.

It's also really funny. The movie is anchored by a lot of sitcom wordplay jokes, easy sight gags like the matching suits and ten-gallon hats of gargantuan Big Enos and diminutive Little Enos, much more elaborate sight gags like the entire roof of Sheriff Justice's car being torn clean off, and of course the sometimes impenetrable but always amusing CB code talk. That's all you really need to create a charming trifle of a road comedy, but the real secret weapon of this film is the handful of signature performances from the main cast.

Burt Reynolds personifies easy cowboy charm with his lounging posture, high octave belly laughs, and rakish good looks. Sally Field is adorable and so far from the standard helpless bimbo this type of film would typically deploy. Jerry Reed steals every frame of the film he's in, sometimes just sitting and singing to himself and his hound dog. And Jackie Gleason is not playing this to the rafters...he's playing this to Alpha Centauri. Buford T. Justice is an exquisitely cartoonish character and Gleason uses his decades of experience and command of attention to make it the most quotable, fun, outrageous performance imaginable. It's not often that a big car chase movie manages to out-do its stunts with the charisma of it's protagonist and antagonist. In fact, I'm not sure if it ever happened again. Jerry Reed's music is also something of a star of this movie, particularly the bouncy "Eastbound and Down" which has remarkable staying power even...holy crap, 40 years later. And then you have Field and Reynolds' very real chemistry, particularly their barbed banter during a lot of the long stretches in the famous Trans Am.

It's nothing particularly innovative in the realm of technical filmmaking, although Hal Needham certainly could stage automobile mayhem the right way. The film seems to have its own set of physics that make every moment of potential peril a very spirited round of bumper cars, and even as motorcycles fly through the air, cars edge underneath the trailers of trucks, and Field's character Carrie asks incredulously "Are we really going a hundred and ten?" it all becomes really easy to accept because it all looks so stripped down, simple, and fun. As the sequels are quick to show, the more bombast you add to the production, the more wacky circumstances are tacked onto the plot, and the more ludicrous the gags get, the less engaging this premise is. The success of this film is in how casual it can be, and how easily viewers can project their own escape/power/heist/race fantasies on it.

I can't help but sing the praises of Mr. Burton Leon Reynolds, Jr. and how his swagger helped frame the idea of "cool" for a lot of American kids. This film was him at the very top of his game during the sex symbol/leading man era of his career, and it showcases all the things he did best. Chief among them: you believe one hundred percent that he was having the time of his life making this movie, and that makes it all the more fun to watch.

Rating: ✰✰✰✰

This review is a part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile, which includes reviews and movie lists not covered here at the blog, including a ranking of several franchises and excerpts from the book, Cinema Autopsy, which is available on the Amazon Kindle store.
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