Unfairly, perhaps, but Smokey and the Bandit is still a film I rope into the Dukes of Hazzard style and setting. Burt Reynolds is not the link between the two films, but the country antics and redneck relaxation of the inhabitants. Country music for this Hal Needham film replaces the appearance of country legend Willie Nelson in the Johnny Knoxville comedy vehicle. If there’s one thing these cowboy-hat wearing freaks love more than their country music, it is good old American beer. I’m not sure why that is. I’ve tried American beer, and it is as close to water as the boats in the harbour. American drinking culture is a fascinating avenue worthy of criticism, but now is not the place for it. Smokey and the Bandit, after all, is a PG.
Reynolds composes himself well during these moments of hokey family humour. They push the boundaries from time to time, but it is the simplicity that makes Smokey and the Bandit so passive. It is earnest in its need to make an audience laugh, but it tries often and falls flat frequently. Manoeuvring a forklift around and the subsequent slapstick that comes from a man being thrown through glass bottles and boxes of Coors should prove rewarding, but the camerawork leaves much to be desired. Needham never quite manages to bring his direction front and centre, which is never usually essential for a comedy film, but it is often desirable to have pacing and focus on the activity of comedy, rather than the area around them.
Perhaps the classic comedies of America are lost on me. Or perhaps it is my lack of care for Darville (Reynolds) and company. Happenstance encounters with a former bride to be and a long arm of the law should lead to some fun moments or something that conjures a tint of humour, but it does not manage to muster the courage. It is never anything stronger than the dated, high-speed chases and the unmemorable-yet-charming opportunities Reynolds can offer. He is a cool screen presence to hold onto, but when the talk turns to betting, legs and cowboys, it is hard to crack through Smokey and the Bandit with anything more than a grimace on the face and a head in the hands. The few humour-fuelled moments are as fast as Darville drives his car. His lead foot brings only mild concern to Carrie (Sally Field), but complete horror and comically overdone hate from Sherriff Justice (Jackie Gleason).
Comedy can never be everybody’s cup of tea, but Smokey and the Bandit is not my can of Coors either. Gleason plays the dastardly, scenery-chewing villain while Reynolds and Field flee a threat that barely throws them from their path to a happy ending. With a film this poorly written, it is difficult to figure out where or what Smokey and the Bandit wishes to do. Comedy is the clear aim, but either its target is minuscule or its director is blind. “I thought it was funny,” Darville states. I didn’t.