Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Directed by Hal Needham

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Everyone knows and loves Bandit (Burt Reynolds) and will do just about anything to help him along the way in Smokey and the Bandit.  He’s a Han Solo-type character who even in the most dire circumstances remains in control, and he spends most of the film toying with a pursuing police officer as he transports bootleg cases of Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta.

That police officer is Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), a cartoonish villain who is way out of his jurisdiction but chases after Bandit like Wile E. Coyote after the Road Runner.  He harbors a grudge against the Bandit after he picks up a hitchhiker, Carrie (Sally Field), the would-be bride who left Justice’s son, Junior (Mike Hentry), at the altar.  Junior, for his part, doesn’t seem bothered one bit by her departure.

Bandit’s partner in crime is Cledus “Snowman” Snow (Jerry Reed), the one who actually transports the cargo in his truck while Bandit zips around in a much faster car, there to divert police attention away from the illegal booze.  Bandit seems to be either wholly unnecessary or absolutely amazing at his job considering he attracts attention everywhere, leaving Cledus to cruise in relative peace towards Atlanta.

The main source of antagonism, however, is Justice, but he is only ever portrayed as an inept, resentful fool.  He pursues Bandit tirelessly, even as his car slowly erodes around him, adding to the cartoonish feel.

Bandit’s race back to Atlanta is helped along by a handful of truckers and other passersby who have access to CB radios on which they can communicate and help him evade the law.  They band together, just one portion of the adoring crowd on the quiet interstates, turning Bandit’s race into a noteworthy event, similar to the escalation of the plot in Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express.

This is a fun movie and that means the stakes are moderate if present at all.  We know Bandit will get away in the end, and this all has the feel of an extended episode of tv, surely to end in a place that promises Bandit the opportunity to head out on his next adventure.

He’s a character who doesn’t change throughout the film even with the introduction of Carrie, his ostensible love interest.  For the most part they just flirt in the ways I remember Han and Leia doing, but there is one interesting conversation in which they address the possibility that they have absolutely nothing in common and are thus only apparently compatible so long as adrenaline can fill the silences between them.

It’s brought up only to be dismissed because that need for adrenaline, the rush of a good interstate race, is enough to keep them together.  They share a common recklessness, a playful distrust of the law that I have to imagine was growing during the 70s.  As Carrie, Sally Field plays a character who rejects the domestic life of a housewife when we first meet her and is keen on making her own adventure, as she does.  This character seems to me a cousin of the likes of Mary Richards, the Mary Tyler Moore character in the 70s show Mary Tyler Moore (*interesting that the show name is that of the lead actress even though she plays a character with a different name).

So Bandit is just a vessel for the more meaningful character, the one who has an actual character arc and whose growth has more to say about the world at large.  Carrie’s increased agency is the real heart of this story, from what I gather, and Bandit is some kind of guardian angel, a smooth-talking, charismatic tour guide to what the world has to offer.

Up Next: 6 Balloons (2018), Game, Over Man! (2018), Lean On Pete (2018)

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