Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

7 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Smokey and the Bandit” starts slow, but ends fast. It’s the strangest thing—it’s a movie that I wanted to just move along at first, but as it ended, I wanted to see more. It happened after about twenty minutes in that I started to really enjoy myself. Actually, I can tell you the moment it happened. It happened when Sally Field appeared on screen and joined the adventure of Burt Reynolds’ “Bandit” (as he’s known by his CB radio handle) and Jerry Reed’s “Snowman” as they go on an urgent trip to haul a truckload of Coors beer from Texas to Georgia.

To be sure, I was enjoying the company of Reynolds and Reed, who have a nice comic rapport with each other as they kid with around in their introductory scenes together. What I wasn’t enjoying was the way the bet for the beer was set up, by rich Big Enos and Little Enos (annoying), and I also wasn’t looking forward to how it would all turn out since Bandit and Snowman got the beer with no trouble at all and only fifteen minutes into the movie. I was hoping something would bring the movie to life—hard to believe I could ask for that, since Bandit is driving a cool-looking black Trans Am, but I need more than a car to get me interested. I’m not driving the car, and Reynolds and Reed communicating by CB radio (Reed drives the truck full of beer) could get boring. That’s how I felt while watching this movie.

But thankfully, director Hal Needham apparently knew someone like me would feel this way. So instead of a mere “getaway show,” he brings along three things to make “Smokey and the Bandit” into something fun.

The first is the character of Carrie, played by Sally Field. She’s an excited young woman who joins Bandit after hitching a ride with him, while wearing a wedding dress. She ran away from a wedding and wants something new. What she gets is Bandit’s exciting reckless-driving. What Bandit finds (and what we find) is a terrific gal. She’s attentive, fun, excitable, and so darn cute. She even gets her own CB handle—“Frog.” (“’Cause you hop around like one,” Bandit explains. “And I’d like to jump you.”) And as Sally Field plays her, she brings the heroic side of the movie to life. She’s very funny as she shouts for joy over Bandit’s driving and attempts to explain her background to this charming person she just met (while Bandit has his CB radio on for Snowman to listen to her ramblings). I loved watching her.

The second is the villain—a Texas Mountie with the handle of “Smokey Bear.” He could have been just a boring, one-dimensional caricature. Well, as played by Jackie Gleason, Smokey has two of those things right—“one-dimensional” and “caricature”—but never “boring.” In fact, Gleason is absolutely hilarious as this overweight lawman who chases Bandit along the trail and doesn’t give up for anything. He doesn’t care if he’s far out of his jurisdiction. He just wants to find Bandit and nab him. He’ll shout if he doesn’t get what he wants and takes it out on his idiot son, Junior (whom “Frog” was about to marry), even going as far as to say “There is no way that you could come from my loins.”

The third is the staging of each scene that follows as those two characters are introduced. As Smokey chases Bandit from place to place, the chases are well-staged, well-shot, and most importantly, fun to watch. Pretty much every way Bandit can evade Smokey is put on display here. They’re to the point where I found myself actually involved and I was proud of the movie for bringing me to this after a slow opening.

So what if there’s no feel for Bandit and Snowman to deliver the beer to Big and Little Enos on time? Let these folks drive, let Field keep talking, let Gleason keep chasing after Bandit like Wile E. Coyote, let Reed get beat up by some tough guys at a bar so he can gain revenge by running over their motorcycles in his truck (I love that scene). Once “Smokey and the Bandit” gets going, it really gets going. And as I said, when it was over, I wanted it to keep going.

I love you, Sally Field. I really love you.

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