I cannot envision the world where a movie like Smokey And The Bandit—an action-comedy about a famed local driver and his trucker friend tasked with retrieving 400 cases of outlawed Coors beer in 28 hours while being chased by a Texas sheriff for picking up a runaway bride—can be the second highest-grossing film of the year its release, second only to the Star Wars. Yet that is what happened in 1977, because Smokey And The Bandit is goddamn magical.
(Welcome back to Jalopnik Movie Club, where we take a look at cars in movies and movies about cars, and you write in with all of your hot takes. This week, we’re reviewing Smokey And The Bandit, a movie about beer and Pontiac.)
My expectation for this movie was so low I am actually in disbelief at how much I ended up enjoying it. Very few other movies have done what Smokey And The Bandit accomplishes with its carefree attitude, great dialogue, memorable characters and an instant classic of a song. This is a very difficult movie not to enjoy.
I was expecting something dated, boring, completely overrated. Something I wouldn’t be able to relate to.
I completely underestimated this movie. Who can’t relate to the desire to floor a Trans Am in pursuit of beer and riches?
I admittedly had to look up what serves as the foundation of this story, which is that Coors beer was not legally sold East of the Mississippi River until the mid-’80s because of how it was canned. This made people want it. According to the movie, it was desirable enough to dish out $80,000 for a good amount.
Unlike last week’s movie, Logan Lucky, which fails to feature even a hint of a car chase, Smokey And The Bandit has car chasing in spades. It is essentially a non-stop hour-and-a-half long Pontiac ad, and I mean that in the best, most complimentary way possible. It’s definitely one of the best entries from the time where a lot of movies about hoards of dumb cops not knowing how to drive and crash into each other in exciting and absurd ways.
The characters in this movie are the best, whether you’re laughing with them or at them. Burt Reynolds is often a punchline these days, but this is the movie where you really understand how he could be a charismatic leading man. If I was taller, I’m not saying I would dress like him, but I’m not saying I wouldn’t seriously consider it.
I am almost shocked that Sally Field’s “Frog” runaway bride character was not the typical “annoying girl” you typically find in these generically masculine movies. She isn’t just a distraction for the movie. She’s dressed reasonably, gives the Bandit shit despite falling in love with him, and avoids being a target for punchlines. Plus, she gets plenty of wheel time.
Finally, Sheriff Buford T. Justice, and his son that may or may not be of his own loins, deliver the best laughs of the entire movie.
This is a great movie to have on in the background of your weekend, but it deserves to be watched thoroughly. It’s borderline mindless action with some good lines to catch you off guard when you do pay attention. It’s somehow corny without slipping into cringeworthy, and it’s great. It’s exactly what you would expect from stuntman Hal Needham’s directorial debut.
The Bandit’s 1977 Pontiac Trans Am is one of the most iconic muscle cars in movie history, with its paint scheme matching the lovely mural adorning the Bandit’s 18-wheeler. It’s hilarious how the movie cuts away from the stunts, like when the Trans Am lands the bridge jump and is clearly destroyed, only to cut to Bandit and Frog completely unfazed by the seemingly violent landing they just experienced, or how the car seems in perfect shape considering all of the walls and fences Bandit ends up driving through.
The car looks great, sounds great, and the movie treats it with respect, avoiding any sort of speed ramping to make it seem faster. It sounds genuine, from engine note to tire squeal, and the open T-tops help to open up the car for the camera to better capture the characters. It’s clear there was a stuntman behind the camera, and that he knew what he was doing.
How Seth Rogen hasn’t remade this movie with him running illegal Colorado weed East yet is almost unbelievable. I’m not saying that should happen, just that it seems an obvious grab. Maybe it’s because he will never compete with the charm of Burt Reynolds, or how much more drug trafficking is frowned upon these days compared to the freewheeling ‘70s.
Anyway, I’m off to cut T-tops into my car and buy a CB radio, and I fully intend to only ever refer to cops as “smokey” for the rest of my life. All while playing this:
That’s all from me, now let’s hear from those of you that emailed with your thoughts, opinions and hot takes about Smokey And The Bandit:
I love this movie!
I was 7 when Smokey and the Bandit came out. When i was 10 a neighbor got a very early VCR and his dad had 2 video tapes, Smokey & The Godfather pt2. A few times a year on a rainy days we would sneak into his basement and watch Smokey and the Bandit. At 10 years old most of the humor and love story was lost on me but it was 1980 and my life was all about car chases (we had CHiPs and Dukes of Hazzard and a ton of other shows with car stunts every week on TV). and this movie was essentially a 2 hour car chase with a bad ass car, that 77 Trans Am. I can remember finding the Revel model at KMart and painstakingly putting it together only to put the firebird on the hood askew at the very end, then tearing it as i tried to fix it.
By the mid 80's we got cable and HBO and Smokey and the Bandit was always on. I was a teenager now. My hormones were raging and Sally Field was hot (not Heather Locklear flashy hot, but girl next store conceivably obtainable hot). I had matured a bit since the basement days so the humor was starting to land. I loved the Enos brothers, Snowman & Fred, Junior and especially Sheriff Buford T Justice. I had always loved the slapstick element of the movie but now was enjoying the some of the subtle stuff, especially the interaction between the Sheriff and his son.
I got my first job somewhere around this time and started saving, I was going to have a Trans Am. I had saved enough by 1989 to get one but being in New Jersey finding a late 70's Trans Am in decent condition was near impossible (no internet mind you and we could only get local copies of the Auto Trader) I did find a beautiful 88 Trans Am, It was fire engine red with TTops and color matching honeycomb wheels. It wasn’t the bandit (nor Knight rider for that matter) but it was mine. Those pop-up headlights, the vented hood, the wrap around spoiler...but i digress.
I still watch Smokey and the Bandit when it is on (and quote the dialogue to my wife’s chagrin). The plot is Simple, a bet. Get a package and bring it back in a certain amount of time. Not a lot of tour de force acting required here, but what stands out is the chemistry the characters have. You get the feeling that Bandit and Cledus have had other adventures together, that Carrie does fall for Bo, that Sheriff Justice detests his son and sees the missed opportunity of marrying him off to Carrie. I am not even going to mention the relationship between Cledus & Fred. The characters feel genuine even if Jackie Gleeson is playing it a little over the top.
When I watch the movie now I marvel at the stunts that they were doing in 1976. Watch the scenes with the Trans Am racing through towns, that car is going at full speed, the same with the Semi. No digital trickery, no speeding up the film. Hal Needham was a top notch stuntman and directed this movie thru a stuntman’s lens. Also listen to this movie. The soundtrack is superb, Jerry Reed knocks it out of the park with “East Bound and Down” and “The Bandit”. Also listen for the car noises, there are scenes where the engine in that Trans Am is screaming as they are running it wide open, listen for the screeching tires and the crunch of metal on metal in the wrecks.
I can’t state enough how much influence this movie had on me.
BTW in 1976 you could get 2 cheeseburgers and and an iced tea for $1.50
Snowman AKA Cledus is lowkey the real beer run hero.
If they were to do a modern remake of this movie, they should totally consider making it from Cledus’s perspective. Keep Bandit for the levity, of course. Although the storyline clearly shines a light on Bandit AKA Beau as the main character, in some ways, Snowman (AKA Cledus) could’ve lowkey been the real hero of the beer run.
First, there’s Snowman being a bonafide wheelman of a fully loaded and speeding semi. If we’re taking those speeds they quoted as canon, major props have to go Snowman’s way for getting that tractor-trailer up to 90-MPH and keeping it there. The Trans-Am was made for speed, not so much the semi. Not to mention, he’s the one doing the actual shifting. I’m sure the manual elitists almost fainted at the sight of an automatic shift console in the Trans-Am.
Then there are the stakes at risk. Presumably, if the police actual doled out a fine, Cledus would be the one getting the brunt of it with Bandit being charged as an accessory. Snowman is the one with a family here. Whereas Bandit is doing the run mainly for fun and because he’s bored, Cledus has actual mouths to feed.
And that bit at the end there when Bandit was about to give up within a stone’s throw of the finish line. Really? If it wasn’t for Cledus’s last-minute decision to bulldoze the police blockade, the whole shebang would’ve been for naught.
Finally, a man who fights against superior odds for his dog is truly a man among men. I’m not really sure why those bikers decided to pick a fight with a man and his Bassett Hound but thankfully the writers let him run over their bikes.
The Bandit had the majority of the fancy driving and was the spark behind the whole trip but I’m just saying, Cledus was a pretty awesome character too.
In this movie we see the following: A fisherman in water, a dog in water, and a motorcycle… In water.
Everyone aboard the moustache express! Another trip into a different generation with an undemanding but amusing smugglers run in the good ‘ol South. Today Smoke and the Bandit could be considered trivial but the film is honest and consistent. It takes but a few minutes to understand the shticks that will play throughout the duration. This is by no means a testament to cinematography but in a way it’s refreshing to view a movie that doesn’t try to shake a person off like a basset hound to a flea.
This film is the ultimate product placement in the form of moustache trimmers, Trans-Ams and Coors. It puts Transformers, Camaros and Bud Light to shame. It’s hard not to root for Burt as he effortlessly “sticks it to the man” while seducing a young Sally Field in a Road Runner and Coyote like chase. Jackie Gleason provides the slapstick punches and Jerry Reed the witty lines. As expected, the entire premise and some of the material is on the dated side.
The black and gold Trans-Am weighed heavy on this generation. A car being a true spawn of the 70’s rocking the same colors as John Player Special cars. It earned it’s iconic status easily. The majority of the movie is the chase from Texas back to Georgia in an amusing game of cat and mouse ending with the destruction of the Texas Sheriff Pontiac Le Mans and the crashes of other police vehicles at the expense of a harmless Kenworth backed bootleg run.
Movie: This is an unornamented comedic chase from the late 70’s. Although Star Wars was the only film to beat it at the box office that year, I can only give it a C+.
Car Movie: Iconic A+
Smokey and the Bandit may be one of the most American car movies ever made. Fast, American cars, V8s, cowboy hats and truckers bring this movie to the top of any car enthusiasts must watch. Hound dogs, bar fights, and ample insults with cursing are the cherry on top to this classic film. God-tier characters like Snowman and Buford T Justice make it an all star cast. Plus, Fred.
Joe The Drummer:
I was five in 1977 when Smokey And The Bandit came out. My uncle, then 16, took me to see it at the theater on approximately his 15th time to see it. I was transfixed. Star Wars came out that summer too, but I missed it. I later developed a deep and abiding love for the ways of the Force, but in 1977, I couldn’t relate. The attraction to spaceships eluded me, but a black Trans Am and a Kenworth with a garish mural on the side raising hell clear across the Deep South of my childhood? Now this I could relate to. It caught up with me the following fall when I started first grade, though - all my classmates wanted to play Star Wars on the playground, and I had no idea how. Since then, I have watched it countless times, and I have worn out one TV-dubbed VHS copy, two storebought VHS copies, and two DVD copies. It is the only movie I can recite the entire dialogue to, from “Is this your rig, son?” to “Daddy, wait, don’t leave me! Who’s gonna hold your hat?”
First of all, SATB often doesn’t get its due as a genuinely funny movie, especially considering that first-time director Hal Needham let the actors ad-lib much of the dialogue - the entire truck stop scene with the Bandit and Sheriff Justice was unscripted, and it’s a scream. When you have a comic genius like Jackie Gleason on you picture and you turn him loose, you get awesome lines like, “Lemme have a Diablo sammich and a Dr. Pepper, and make it fast, I’m in a goddamn hurry!” Years later, I got to meet Jerry Reed after a concert, and when my turn came, I stuck out my hand and said, “Hoss, you ain’t gonna believe this, but that crazy sumbitch just tried to drive right up under my truck,” and he threw his head back and laughed as he shook my hand. I’m not sure whether that particular line was scripted, but if you’ve ever heard more than one Jerry Reed song other than “East Bound And Down,” you can imagine him coming up with that one himself. (Needham famously once said onset, “Screw the dialogue, let’s just crash some cars.”)
Which reminds me: we’re here to talk about cars. There never has been, nor will there ever be, a cooler movie car than a 1977 Pontiac Trans Am SE. Fight me. You’re wrong. Especially after Little Enos peeled off a few extra hundreds to make it “speedier than that.” Best of all, since this was 1977, and CGI horseshit wasn’t even a dream yet, and Hal Needham was a former stuntman, the driving stunts are real - very real. Reference the Bandit screaming around a sharp curve after leaving that smokey backwards in the creek, to which Frog (Sally Field) responds with, “I think I just went 10-100.” Or the epic burnout before the “pondhopping” scene. “Drives purty good, don’t he, Sarge?” You children, step away from your bullshit Fast And Furious franchise. Watch some real drivers really drive real cars. They used to do that in the movies. And in this one, they jump one over a river. For real.
And when Bandit radioes Hot Pants Hilliard to call in the cavalry, wow - it is a literal parade of every variety of mean machine you’d see on the streets in 1977, from muscle cars to custom vans to street rods to lifted mud trucks, forming a united front against The Man. And Jackie Gleason’s poor mutilated Lemans patrol car is one of the funniest, most pitiful nonhuman costars in movie history.
But by this point in my life, my favorite thing about this movie is how it proudly thrust southern culture into the national scene, via a little movie that could. SATB opened in Atlanta and was marketed as a regional B-movie. By the end of the summer, it had had a second opening at Radio City Music Hall, and by the end of the year, it was the second highest-grossing movie of the year behind Star Wars. Also, by 1979, sales of Pontiac Trans Ams had topped 100,000 units for the first time - and that’s not counting sales of the base Firebird, for buyers who wanted the look but couldn’t afford “speedier than that.” It led to The Dukes Of Hazzard and BJ And the Bear on TV. And don’t tell me it didn’t have at least a little to do with Knight Rider - Michael could just as easily have been driving a black Porsche.
As you can see by my Kinja profile pic, the Bandit is my spirit animal. My fictional male role models from childhood, in order, are the Bandit, Sonny Crockett, Atticus Finch, and Gene Simmons.
Best southern movie ever? Best car movie ever? No. Best movie ever. Period.
And that wraps it up for this week’s Jalopnik Movie Club review! Thank you to everyone who wrote in with their takes, which I encourage you all to do for next week!
Speaking of next week, we’ll be reviewing the Nicholas Cage Gone In 60 Seconds, so be sure to get it watched and collect your thoughts, and write in with your opinions and hot takes to Justin at jalopnik dot com, formatted something like this:
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Body: [Your Kinja username if you have one!]
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In the meantime, sound off below about the good and bad of Smokey And The Bandit and all of its punchlines, car crashes and smiles, and see you all next week!