When TCM host Ben Mankiewicz introduced Smokey and the Bandit, there was both a gleam in his eye and a smirk on his mouth. The gleam comes from his admission that as a 10-year-old boy in 1977 it was the first film that made him fall in love with movies. Moreso than even Star Wars, which also came out that year, it was the movie he watched over and over again, making him desperate to both be the Bandit and to see more movies just like it. The smirk comes from the knowledge that even on its 40th anniversary Smokey and the Bandit doesn’t really belong on Turner Classic Movies. It's hardly a classic; it's not even really a good movie, but there is something about it that delivers a monumental joy despite its many flaws. About twenty minutes into the film, Burt Reynolds looks directly at the camera, smiles that Burt Reynolds' smile, then takes off in his Trans-Am, and you just forget all the critical objections forming in your mind and start having a good time.
The plot, if you can even call it that, involves the Bandit (Reynolds) and Cledus (Jerry Reed) taking a big-rig truck full of Coors beer across state lines (something that was illegal at the time). The Bandit drives the now classic Trans-Am to run interference with the cops. Along the way, they pick up Carrie (Sally Field) and burn the chaps of Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). But really it's just an excuse to have 90 minutes of car chases, wise-cracks, a little romance, and a lot of scene-chewing by Gleason.
Two-time Oscar winner Sally Field took the role because she was hearing rumors that people didn’t think she was attractive enough to be a movie star and she figured being the love interest of Burt Reynolds in a movie ought to be enough to quash those thoughts. For her part, she does look good in a tight pair of pants. She’s also a lot of fun and the two of them have terrific chemistry (the real-life couple fell in love on the set and that really shows up on screen).
The action sequences no longer hold up. The biggest set piece is having the Trans-Am jump a bridge but having seen more than one episode of The Dukes of Hazzard (a show no doubt inspired by the film), it seemed nothing special to me. The chase scenes likewise feel like low-rent versions of stunts performed a thousand times in the Fast and Furious film franchise, which itself is clearly influenced by Smokey and the Bandit. The jokes, too, are pretty corny, and the film generally feels like it was improvised on the spot with some loose editing that allowed for the actors (especially Jackie Gleason) to get as many laughs as possible before yelling “cut”. There’s plenty of trucker lingo thrown in as well, which probably gave the entire industry a boost as the movie was the second highest-grossing film of the year and as the big rig parked in my theater’s lot attests, it is still beloved in those circles.
Despite its many flaws, I still kind of loved Smokey and the Bandit. It's a big, dumb, goofball of a film, but it's made with a lot of heart that kept me grinning from start to finish.
Smokey and the Bandit finishes its special two-day run in the theaters on May 24 with screenings at 2pm and 7pm. You can find locations and tickets at the Fathom Events website.