45 years later: Smokey and the Bandit
Movies like Smokey and the Bandit never get made these days. No, not because of political correctness or wokeness or any of that nonsense. It’s more because it’s the type of movie that was so specifically tuned into its specific time and place.
Directed by stuntman Hal Needham, Smokey and the Bandit is many things. It’s a very Southern caper film. It’s a vehicle for the specific movie star charms of Burt Reynolds, then at the height of his power.
And it’s part of that genre from the late 1970s and early 1980s in which much of the running time is taken up by cars racing each other across long, largely Southern expanses. This included both the 1980 sequel and 1981’s The Cannonball Run — both also directed by Needham — and the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard, which aired around the same time. (And like Dukes of Hazzard, Smokey and the Bandit features characters named “Enos” and “Cledus.”)
Part of what’s so great about Smokey and the Bandit is just how low-stakes the action is. The plot entails a scheme to… a plot to smuggle a truck full of Coors beer from Texas to Georgia. No, it’s not moonshine, and the film isn’t set during Prohibition; it just turns out that it was at that team not allowed to sell Coors east of Oklahoma. Is Coors good enough beer to be worth the trouble? Probably not, but I digress.
Big Enos and Little Enos (Pat McCormick and Paul Williams), wealthy race car owners, want to celebrate a big win in Atlanta — why? “because he’s thirsty, dummy” — so they hire The Bandit (Burt Reynolds) and his associate The Snowman (Jerry Reed) to take the hundreds of cases of Coors across four states. In pursuit is a vengeful sheriff (Jackie Gleason.)
Of course, because it wouldn’t look cool for The Bandit to drive a truck, he instead drives a Pontiac Trans Am, in order to distract the cops from where the beer is. Along the way, he picks up a runaway bride (a shockingly young Sally Field), and things go predictably on that front.
Yes, the chemistry is crackling, and the script is very funny, as is the film’s very 1970s conceit of including a theme song (Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down”) that recites the plot of the movie. But the meat-and-potatoes of Smokey and the Bandit is those car chases, which aren’t especially special effects-laden but are still outstanding.
Compare it to the present day’s most famous car-chase franchise, the Fast and the Furious movies. That series began more than 20 years ago with comparable stakes to those of Smokey and the Bandit, but over time has just gotten bigger and bigger, with huge casts, international intrigue, and even (in the last one) a trip to space.
One thing those had in common with Smokey and the Bandit is box office success. Smokey was the second highest-grossing film of 1977, after Star Wars. It made over $126 million worldwide, which was by far the biggest hit of Reynolds’ career. The gang got back together in 1980 for a sequel, although the third film, in 1983, was a flop that didn’t include most of the original cast or crew.
Smokey and the Bandit has never been remade or rebooted, although Reynolds did star as Boss Hogg in the 2005 movie version of The Dukes of Hazzard. Much as it was specifically of its time, Smokey and the Bandit remains enjoyable, watchable, and popular today.