The Series Project: Smokey and the Bandit (Part 1)

Smokey and the Bandit (dir. Hal Needham, 1977)

Bandit 1 poster

The story is a simple man-on-a-mission setup: The Bandit (Burt Reynolds) has been hired by Big Enos and Little Enos (Pat McCormick and Paul Williams) to go to Texas, pick up a semi full of Coors (a crappy beer, but I guess they didn't have access to the good stuff in the '70s), and bring it back to a dry county in Georgia. All in less than a day. If Bandit does it, he gets a buncha money. Easy peasy. In order to do this, Bandit must split his convoy into one semi and one Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am (which was hot shit in the 1970s) The Firebird speeds ahead checking the road for cops, and radioing back advice to the truck following him. Bandit will drive the Trans-Am, and his buddy Cledus (country star Jerry Reed) will drive the semi with his Basset Hound Fred riding shotgun. The comic strip “Fred Basset” premiered before this movie.

On the way back from Texas, Bandit picks up a comely hitchhiker named Carrie (whom he nicknames Frog), played by Sally Field. It just so happens that Carrie is running from her wedding (she's still in her dress when she piles in), which means her groom in on her tail. Her groom is the dumb-as-cheese Junior (Mike Henry), who is dominated by his bloviating, overweight uncle, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Cops are nicknamed Smokey. We now have a Smokey on the tail of the Bandit. There are no further plot complications, other than the predictable “twist” that Frog will fall for Bandit's charms.

Bandit 1 back to back

But the story is not the important thing, even though I appreciate straightforward man-on-a-mission stories. No, the highlight of Smokey and the Bandit – apart from all the trucker lingo – is The Bandit himself. I don't quite understand the sex appeal of Burt Reynolds (he was once considered one of the sexiest men alive), but I understand his overwhelming lackadaisical allure. The Bandit is a lot like Bugs Bunny. A streetsmart wiseguy with little regard for authority, fliply and confidently dismissing the cops who would stop him from his casually destructive habits. He giggles a lot, and his smirk is never absent from his face. For The Bandit, life is fun, and the sputtering fat Justice who would incarcerate him is a plaything. Bandit's casual Southern anarchy is so powerful, the film is loaded down with ancillary truckers and highway-dwelling denizens who want to do nothing but help him. Indeed, Bandit is something of a highway celebrity who is known for his feats of driving and long-haul-under-pressure prowess.

The film is overall a bit loose. For a movie about a ticking clock mission, it sure spends a lot of time stopping for food, going for walks, and slow conversations about romance. There is no sense of rush. The Bandit is so relaxed, there is no question as to whether or not he'll fail. He's going to succeed, so even though we're supposed to be speeding, there's no rush. I would have appreciated more urgency.

Bandit 1 Smokey

Your enjoyment of Smokey and the Bandit, then, will be directly contingent on how much you like Bandit, and how much you can be charmed by that smirk of his. It worked on Sally Field, so it can work on you. Buford T. Justice is a bit of a cliché these days, and has been imitated time and time again in TV shows and other movies. Indeed, the Justice/Junior relationship is a direct antecedent to the Capt. Harris/Proctor relationship in the Police Academy movies. But you have to give director Needham and especially Jackie Gleason credit for creating an indelible movie character, however broad and goofy. Gleason is behind Ralph Kramden, Chester A. Riley, Minnesota Fats, and Buford Justice, four indelible pop culture characters. No wonder he was called “The Great One.”

By the film's end, after Buford T. Justice has chased The Bandit across several state lines, had his car smashed and his temper shredded, both he and The Bandit come to regard one another with respect. Buford admits that The Bandit is a clever prey, and The Bandit admits that he's never had such a determined cop on his tail. The two of them occasionally communicate with their CB radios. The Bandit, Carrie, and Cledus are finally seen speeding off to Boston, again at the behest of the Enoses, with Smokey continuing his eternal pursuit.

Dumb, charming, loosey-goosey Southern-fried sincerity. That's what these movies are all about. Although they tip into cartoon stupidity almost immediately.