Okay, so Smokey and the Bandit isn’t exactly Battleship Potemkin or Citizen Kane. The Hal Needham directed movie doesn’t aspire to be great art, but from opening to closing credits it is great fun.
Starring Burt Reynolds, Jerry Reed, Jackie Gleeson, and Sally Field, Smokey and the Bandit is the tale of two truckers making an extraordinarily large beer run. On a bet, they are tasked with bringing hundreds of cases of Coors from Texas to Georgia in 28 hours – a difficult feat due to the number of miles involved and an illegal one for the transporting of the beer east of Texas.
The Bandit (Burt Reynolds), is known as the fastest trucker around, but he doesn’t actually drive a truck in the film, instead he runs blocker in a black Trans Am – his task is to get any and all cops out of the way before Jerry Reed’s Cledus “Snowman” Snow comes through with the truck full of beer. It actually all goes pretty well for the two men until the Bandit runs across a broken down car with a girl, Carrie (Sally Field), in front of it. She hops in and the chase is on – Carrie has run away from her own wedding and the father of the groom, Sherriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), is not happy that anyone would ditch his son, Junior (Mike Henry) at the altar.
It is an inordinately silly movie and, essentially, one long car chase. But, it also remains a relaxed, exceptionally feel-good affair. Field, Reed, and Reynolds laugh their way through nearly the entire feature, and their enthusiasm carries the day. While Gleason doesn’t actually laugh much in the film—Bufford T. Justice is a terribly serious man—he still earns many of the laughs, even where he shouldn’t (like suggesting that Junior couldn’t be his offspring and that as soon as he gets home he’s going to let Junior’s mother have it).
As for that car chase aspect, once the Coors is on board and Frog (Carrie’s nickname) is in the Trans Am, Sherriff Justice and hundreds of other cops are in hot pursuit of the Bandit. Not everyone is necessarily wise to bootlegging aspect of it all, but they are aware of his speeding, avoiding the law, and generally being a nuisance. Consequently, we get to see the Bandit outwit police at roadblocks, jump a bridge, and generally do a good deal of fancy driving – and rarely lose his smile and ability to quip while doing it.
Although they have a great rapport, Snowman and Bandit don’t actually share a ton of on-screen time (what with Snowman being in the trailer and Bandit in the Trans Am). This apparent paradox is cleared up by the fact that the two men both have CB radios and gab that way. The CBs also allow both the police and other truckers to hear what the two fellows are up to (the Bandit and Snowman have a system of constantly changing channels on the CB, but it doesn’t actually seem to confuse any pursuers).
Smokey and the Bandit is also well known for its music. Jerry Reed sings three songs about the Bandit in the film including the now-legendary “East Bound and Down,” a tune which not only is great to sing, but also lends its name to an HBO series.
No, you won’t find any sort of high-art brilliance in Smokey and the Bandit – there is no Rosebud, there is no Odessa Steps sequence; all that the film has to offer is an exceptionally charismatic cast, great bits of comedy, and fast cars running all over the countryside. By the time Smokey and the Bandit II and Smokey and the Bandit 3 rolled around the fun may have lessened somewhat (okay, lessened a lot by the third film), but the original is witty and endearing and just plain fun.
Add Pat McCormick and Paul Williams to the mix as Big and Little Enos Burdette respectively (they’re on the other side of the bet from the Bandit), and there’s even more fun. The Burdettes don’t appear much in the film, but as characters they’re every bit as important, powerful, and iconic as Bandit, Snowman, Frog, or Sherriff Justice. Much like Justice, the Burdettes don’t really get to make that many jokes, but their presence (and suits) is enough to make anyone laugh.
On the new Blu-ray release, one gets to see those suits, the Bandit’s red shirt, and the black Trans Am in all of their glory. The film is free of dirt, scratches, and other imperfections and while the grain—happily—remains intact. It is clear that a lot of work has been done to make the release look good, although some shots certainly look more grainy and somewhat less perfect than others. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, too, is a clean one. One won’t find it as lush and full as a present-day car chase film, but it isn’t really lacking either. Additionally, while the car chase is much of the film, the real reason you’re going to love the movie is for the camaraderie (or lack there of) between the characters, and that is perfectly clear in the audio.
Where the film could use more attention is with the menu system and extras. Once more, and once more inexplicably, Universal has opted to not include a main menu on the Blu-ray. It seems like such a small thing to do but something which makes the viewer experience far better – all releases, no matter how grand, tend to get a bargain basement feel if they don’t have a main menu. Included are two bonus featurettes dealing with the film itself. The first of these is your basic behind-the-scenes piece with interviews of those involved. Like the film itself, it is more anecdotal and amusing than it is probing (and still worth one’s time). There is a CB tutorial which is less fun. Two different Universal 100 year celebration featurettes are also included, one on the lot and the other on the Universal films of the 1970s. The release also comes with a DVD and digital copy.
With Burt Reynolds’ charisma and charm, fast-moving cars, and an easy-going story, Smokey and the Bandit remains hugely fun and endearing nearly 40 years after its original release. It is an expensive title and worth adding to one’s collection.