When it comes to business success and cultural impact, no other car movie comes close to "Smokey and the Bandit." During the utter lousiness of the mid-'70s, this movie celebrated the sheer joy of driving too fast while spitting in the eye of bumbling authority. It's great work, with lasting impact, but it's also a real '70s flick. It's a 90-minute time warp that takes you back to 1977, when it was really cool to be Burt Reynolds, then the world's biggest movie star, driving a black and gold Trans Am while talking on a CB radio. Add in the mocking of authority, which is always cool, and you've got cinematic magic.
The film's story is wholly incidental to its appeal, but there is a plot: Two Georgia truckers, Reynolds and country singer Jerry Reed, are challenged to drive from Atlanta to Texarkana, Texas, retrieve 400 cases of Coors beer, which was then sold only west of the Lone Star State, and return to Atlanta in just 28 hours. Reed drives the truck full of beer, and Reynolds, who plays The Bandit, runs blocker in the Trans Am. Their prize? $80,000. During this journey they meet a bride fleeing her wedding, and the rest of the movie is basically her jilted fianc, Junior, and his father, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (played by "The Great One," Jackie Gleason), chasing them. Subtle? No. Sophisticated? No. Fun? Absolutely.
Remember in 1977 Americans needed some fun. The OPEC oil embargoes and Watergate were still fresh memories, the 55-mph national speed limit was deeply despised and the beloved American musclecar had been recently emasculated by new emissions regulation. In "Smokey," which was directed by longtime stuntman Hal Needham, every car comes screeching to a halt and launches in a billowing burnout. Everything is done to comic effect. The movie is a cartoon that never takes itself seriously and never asks the audience to take it seriously either-just the sort of escape the country needed from a time of economic malaise and diminished expectations.
A lot of the driving is good old rally-style dirt tracking down some dusty roads, and there are some really spectacular stunts. The most notorious of which is a jump by the Trans Am over a collapsed bridge. Plus there's more tire-frying burnouts in "Smokey" than in any other car movie before or since.
Besides the great action, there are other undeniably good elements of this movie. When it comes to playing a stereotypical sputtering southern sheriff, it's hard to imagine anyone doing it better than Jackie Gleason, who looks like he's about to have a heart attack through the whole movie. Gleason's career was in eclipse when this role came around, so the part reminded the world that he was in fact a genius. And Burt Reynolds really is cool in this film.
Audiences loved it. There was only one movie released in 1977 that made more money than "Smokey," and that movie was the original "Star Wars." "Smokey and the Bandit" grossed almost $59 million in 1977, which is the equivalent of more than $135 million today. That's the sort of profitability that makes Hollywood take notice, and it responded with knock-offs, most prominently, the TV series "The Dukes of Hazzard" in 1979. Of course if you never have "Dukes" then you never get "Knight Rider." And without "Knight Rider" there's no "Baywatch." And if there had never been a "Baywatch," well Pamela Anderson would be living in a trailer in Canada.
But the biggest winner from all this was Pontiac. "Smokey and the Bandit" ignited demand for the Trans Am. Pontiac sold only 46,701 Trans Ams during the 1976 model year. Then "Smokey" came out and Pontiac sold 68,745 Trans Ams in '77, 93,341 in '78 and a completely absurd 117,108 during '79. That's more than $1 billion in aditional business in three years for Pontiac.
The original "Smokey" was followed by two vastly inferior sequels. Avoid them both.
Tale of the TapeFilm: "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977)Where's the Chase: Ten minutes, 50 seconds into the film (Chapter 3 on the DVD), the Trans Am shows up on screen. One hour, 20 minutes and 17 seconds later, it leaves, and that's that
Length: 96 minutes
Total Cars Wrecked: 15
Coolest Car: 1977 Pontiac Trans Am Special Edition
Coolest Dialogue: "What we're dealing with here is a complete lack of respect for the law."
Look For: Skid marks already on the pavement from previous takes whenever the Trans Am slides to a stop
Locations: Roads in Georgia and Florida
Available: The Pursuit Pack DVD is $17.38 at Amazon.com and includes all three "Smokey" movies on one disc. That's two movies too many