Burt Reynolds’ star power helped make “Smokey and the Bandit” one of the biggest hits of the ’70s.
Watch it today, and you’ll swear Jackie Gleason was the reason the “Bandit” franchise ruled the roadways.
The 1977 “Bandit,” out today in a slick new Blu-ray presentation, reminds us of a time when Reynolds and his signature ‘stache sat atop Hollywood’s A-list. The superstar didn’t always sweat his assignments as modern movie stars do. He never lost or gained weight like Robert De Niro of Christian Bale, and it’s a safe bet he needed little preparation to lay the Bandit.
Frankly, Reynolds could pull off playing the film’s main character in his sleep, and at times that lack of effort is even clearer in high definition.
Reynolds plays the laconic Bandit, a retired racer who jumps back into business when he’s offered a tidy sum to help haul a shipment of Coors beer from Texas to Georgia. That’s against the law, but the Bandit isn’t interested in playing by the rules.
He recruits his old buddy, Cledus (country crooner Jerry Reed), to drive the beer-laden truck while the Bandit’s Trans Am makes sure the police stay a few car’s lengths away. Early in the trip Bandit picks up a runaway bride (Sally Field) and crosses the path of Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Gleason), the meanest lawman north or south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Director Hal Needham handles the pre-CGI stunt work with elan, capturing the speedy Pontiac as it rockets across the screen. Reynolds and Field provide a certifiably sexy comic tension (they paired up off screen, too), while Reed supplies the cornball humor.
Anyone who found “The Dukes of Hazzard” a laugh riot will probably snicker over the hokey high jinks here, but Gleason’s performance requires no such qualifiers. He’s a volcano trapped in the body of a husky law enforcer, a man whose sense of outrage threatens to boil over in every scene.
He saunters around with single-minded purpose, muttering about that “sumbitch” Bandit and the incompetent officers standing in his way. You’re tempted to root for him, and not the charismatic beer smugglers.
The film looks beautiful on Blu-ray – the powder blue suits, the Bandit’s cherry red shirt and even ol’ Fred the Basset Hound are restored to their original glory. Universal continues to spit polish its archives to grand effect.
The Blu-ray extras include a comprehensive look behind the making of the film featuring both new and vintage interviews connected to the project. We’re told “80 percent” of what Gleason says on screen came straight from his fertile comic brain, not the script.
The second and third “Bandit” films provided diminishing returns, but the original “Bandit” gave us a screen villain who stands the test of time.