Tag Archives: Hal Needham

Smokey and the Bandit II (1980)

(Second viewing, On DVD, September 2017) While Smokey and the Bandit II is a noticeable step down from the first film, I find it fascinating to see that I remembered more of it from boyhood memories than the first film (specifically the end stunt sequences). As a grown-up, there’s almost no limit to the ways this sequel is worse than the original: The set-up makes no sense, the film sabotages itself in ensuring that it revisits the same dynamics from the first film, the irritation caused by Jackie Gleason’s character is magnified (and multiplied by the indulgent use of Dom Deluise) and the whole elephant plot device slows down what should have been a pedal-to-the-metal action comedy. The one thing that the sequel does better than the first is the final demolition derby: While none of the stunts make sense from a story perspective, it’s a special kind of fun to see director/stuntman Hal Needham go crazy with a hundred police cars ready to be scrapped and just film whatever metal-tearing silliness his team can conjure. Otherwise, it’s another excuse to see Burt Reynolds effortlessly charm audiences (although he first has to dig himself out of a contrived pit of overacted despair) and while his banter with Sally Field isn’t as strong this time around, there’s still a little bit of what was so special in the first movie. Otherwise, most reviewers since the film’s release have gotten it right: this is a pure cash grab of a sequel, unnecessary and not particularly well executed. If you’re out of time, just skip to the last twenty minutes or so to see the stunts.

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

(Second Viewing, On DVD, September 2017) I distinctly remember seeing Smokey and the Bandit when I was a boy, but other than a few curious moments of recognition or anticipation on this second viewing, I had forgotten nearly every detail of the film. Much of it isn’t too complicated, dealing with a cross-state beer run enlivened by a vengeful sheriff tracking down the woman who left his son at the altar. The transport truck moving the beer west isn’t nearly as interesting as the black Trans-Am (driven by Burt Reynolds, no less) running interference by attracting as much attraction as speedily as possible. Elements of the premise, these days, can benefit from historical annotations: That Coors wasn’t sold east of Oklahoma; that it spoiled within days due to lack of preservatives; and the various intricacies of police jurisdiction. But little of the technicalities matter when the point of Smokey and the Bandit is to stage stunt sequences, riff of Reynolds’s charm (less potent today—see the need for annotations—but still effective), feature Sally Field in a rather comic role and generally have fun sticking it to The Man. It’s really not subtle—Jerry Reed’s insanely catchy song “East bound and down” essentially acts as a Greek Chorus explaining the main points of the movie. Otherwise, Jackie Gleason’s antagonist is a pure caricature that starts grating early and never becomes more sympathetic. There’s some sweet comedy in the way the “legend” of the Bandit seems universal in the film’s universe, reaching minor characters via CB radio (a technology essential to the film’s atmosphere) and making them react in extraordinary ways to facilitate their progress. The stunts are fine as could be expected from stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, the banter between Reynolds and Field is occasionally great, but it’s Smokey and the Bandit’s general atmosphere that remains compelling today, even if often on an anthropological level. 

The Cannonball Run (1981)

(Second viewing, On DVD, September 2017) It’s funny what we remember from our childhood. Watching The Cannonball Run, which I last saw as a young boy in the early eighties, I had regular flashes of recognition or anticipation as I suspected what was about to happen. Of course, I’m not an eight-year-old boy any more, and my current liking of the film’s stunts and cultural references is somewhat tempered by its juvenile tone and wildly uneven script. Legendary action director Hal Needham knew how to direct stunts (there’s a pointed reference to his Smokey and the Bandit that reminds me that I should re-watch that one soon), and so the best moments of the film are the chases, fights and other action hijinks. A young-looking Jackie Chan brings a bit of his patented style to a desert brawl, and the film also features such legends as Burt Reynolds, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Roger Moore (hilariously riffing on his James Bond turn), Peter Fonda, Farrah Fawcett and Adrienne Barbeau (I did remember their outfits) in various roles. I can still recognize some of those references by dint of having been born in the 1970s, but I wonder what younger viewers will make of them. Some of the comedy still works—I’m specifically thinking about the monologue explaining the rules of the transcontinental Cannonball Run, delivered with practised confidence by Brock Yates, the creator of the real-life Cannonball Run. Alas, this action/comedy charge is seriously hampered by the puerile humour (much of it sexist or racist) and uneven scripting. I strongly disliked Dom Deluise’s character(s), for instance, and gritted my teeth at the stereotypes passing off as jokes: seeing notorious Hong Kong native Jackie Chan cast as a Japanese makes no sense, and let’s really not talk about the middle-eastern Sheikh character. That’s not even getting close to the heavily sexist tone of the film—this is a film by boys for boys, and while I’d argue that there’s a place for cleavage-revealing spandex outfits in racing movies, much of the rest of the film (which plays off drug-facilitated kidnapping for laughs and sexiness, among many other things) is more off-putting than anything else. Add to that some primitive anti-government sentiments (as party-poopers) and you get the picture. For all that I like about the stunts in the film, The Cannonball Run is one of those intriguing but flawed movies that should be prime candidates for a polished remake. I promise I won’t complain too much as long as the worst issues with the original are corrected.