Battered and dazed, I staggered away from the computer yesterday worn thin by cerebral combat. The sheer ferocity of debate at such an elevated level can damage a man's soul as surely as the battle fatigue from a merely physical conflict will. I stumbled to the DVD player for solace. And there, like some tender and mothering get-well card written from the gentle hand of some mustachioed, cowboy-hat wearing guardian angle, was the sure balm that would bring surcease from the strains of thought.
I'm referring, of course, to the "Special Edition" digitally remastered 5.1 Surround Sound (TM and R and YBBI,B) DVD presentation of Smokey and the Bandit. (This is, I think, some new and as yet not generally excepted use of the term "special" – Mr. Snaily, call the boys at Oxford – we've got a new sense number!)
Because some of the denizens of this site are products of the educational systems of far flung countries like England, and Canada, and Ohio, I'm going to have to assume a lack of familiarity with this exquisite cinematic flowering of that late '70s Renaissance of Southern American culture that also produced such lasting artistic statements as the oeuvre of the band Molly Hatchet, the Dukes of Hazzard's battle-cross emblazoned General Lee and the actual Confederate battle-flag flying years the General Stuart haunted Stuart tank of DC Comic's Haunted Tank, a series of Walking Tall films, and the song The Devil Went Down to Georgia.
Smokey and the Bandit was helmed by former stunt man turned writer/director/auteur Hal Needham. (What else could a director who worked with Burt Reynolds in six of his eight feature films be called?) Needham would be responsible for other classics including jingoistic sci-fi actioner Megaforce, the '80s BMX bike "drama" Rad, and the septet of Burt-Reynolds-in-a-car movies that starts with Bandit and goes on to Smokey and the Bandit II, Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II, and Stoker Ace. It is this last set of films – collectively the In Search of Lost Time of Burt-Reynolds-in-a-car movies – that he's best remembered.
The plot of Smokey and the Bandit involves a bet that a trucker and his "blocker" – a fast driver whose job is to speed in front of the trucker and draw off the attention of the local constabulary – cannot deliver a trailer full of Coors beer from Texas to Georgia in 28 hours. The distance, some 900 miles or something like that, would make this task dramatic enough – but wait! There is an added element of danger: the deliver of Coors beer east of the Mississippi constitutes bootlegging! Confused? You are, perhaps, worried because you live east of the Mississippi – in, say, Jacksonville or Atlanta or New York or Paris or Marrakech – and you've got the sad remains of the Coors Light sixer slowly rusting away in the back of your energy-saver Avanti. Fear not, the revenuers aren't about to battering-ram down your front door. This crucial plot point hinges on the now mercifully defunct Anti-Coors Act of 1875, the obscure result of Tammany Hall inspired jurisprudential finagling that was, to the joy of truckers everywhere, struck down in the famed Supreme Court case of Brown v. That Unerring Sense of Where the Body is Positioned Relative to the Ground That the World's Greatest Fighter Pilots, Trapeze Artists, and Stunt Men Have. But, at the time Smokey and the Bandit was made, this bloodthirsty bitch-goddess of an article of law was a heartbreaker for the several million Coors-thirsty Americans unfortunate enough to be born on the wrong side of what was then commonly referred as the Polluted Aqueous Curtain.
Who would be mad enough to make such a "run" (which the film claims is trucker speak for what us civilians would call a run)? The Bandit, played with typical detachment by Burt Freakin' Reynolds, that's who. Though he briefly slid into something like elder statesmanhood in the late '90s – a short-lived transformation fueled mainly by his appearance in Boogie Nights - it is Smokey and the Bandit that The Burt most prominently displays the monstrous egotism that, in Hollywood cinema in the '70s, passed for charm. This was the era that saw the birth of that unique brand of actor that, no matter what character he was performing, he would always just be himself. Think of DeNiro, Pacino, Gere, Beatty. The revolutionary development Reynolds brought to that style of acting was to ditch the unnecessary baggage of even attempting to play a character. The Burt strips characterization down to a minimum – you can tell this character from The Burt's fast-driving egotist in Cannonball Run because Bandit wears a cowboy hat. He doesn't ever make a serious attempt at an Southern accent (a feat given that he's from Georgia), he doesn't try to give the character any particular motivation, he doesn't even try to pretend he isn't in a movie: at one point, after dodging his first cop and completely the first of many chase scenes, he stops the car and smiles to the audience, the car chase equivalent of the post-blow smile a porn actress shoots to fans watching the video. This is a "character" who, when asked what he does for a living, answers, "I go travel around and do what I do best."
In some other movie we could discuss the sort of pomo-inflected pathos-lite of The Burt breaking character to discuss acting in such deadpan terms. Only here, The Burt never had a character to break and one gets the feeling that his short answer is not dramatic understatement so much as it is a complete and full expression of what The Burt believes is the secret to art of acting.
Bandit will be the runs blocker and The Burt will spend the vast majority of the flick tear-assing about in a black and gold Trans Am.
The cast is filled out with Jerry Reed, as Cledus "Snowman" Snow the trucker sidekick; Sally Fields, who despite a mere actress ended up in several Reynolds flicks; and Jackie Gleason, playing a clownish hick sheriff with the wonderful moniker of Bufrd T. Justice.
All these characters are incidental. The film is really more a bizarre experiment in cinema hubris. Instead of acting to fill a role, Reynolds let's the entire world of the film construct itself around his enormously outsized self-regard. The original songs, by Reed, all sing his praises. Every character we run across knows him. Ever chase ends as predictably as the last. This is a world were God is personally invested in the success of the Bandit. When you're The Burt, everything is always easy.
There's a scene in Being John Malkovich where, upon entering his own head, the titular actor finds himself in a world consisting solely of John Malkovich. It is resented as a nightmare. Smokey and the Bandit is something similar, a star remaking a world so it can do naught but reflect his own sense of himself. Only here, it is a love letter.
Should you ever be suffering from the pains of thought, I can't recommend it highly enough.
Title song: Daddy's Cup by the Drive-By Truckers
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