Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The latest Fast & Furious movie has been pushed back a full year, so why not cope with its absence by checking out some other movies with car chases in them?
About 15 minutes into Smokey And The Bandit, Burt Reynolds looks directly into the camera and gives viewers what some would call a shit-eating grin—cocky, self-satisfied, verging on smug. His character, a bootlegger known as the Bandit, has just successfully eluded the first of roughly a zillion cops who’ll pursue him over the course of the movie, as he and buddy Cledus “Snowman” Snow (Jerry Reed) run 400 cases of Coors from Texarkana to Atlanta, attempting to accomplish the task within 28 hours. (In 1977, when the film was released, Coors wasn’t yet licensed to be sold east of the Mississippi River; Bandit and Snowman had to move fast because the beer was then unpasteurized and preservative-free, and would quickly go bad.) Smokey And The Bandit isn’t a film that regularly breaks the fourth wall, à la Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or High Fidelity; Reynolds’ smile at the camera is its only such instance, arriving out of nowhere. But it sets the tone for everything to follow, establishing a conspiratorial pact between Burt (who was maybe Hollywood’s biggest star at the time) and the audience. “We’re in this together,” it says. “Let’s have fun.”
That tone perfectly suits the movie’s period-specific automotive strategy. The ’70s was the golden age of car-chase epics—many of them starring Reynolds—and Smokey represented their commercial zenith, with a domestic gross that would amount to nearly $550 million today. (Only Star Wars was a bigger hit that year.) Despite having been conceived and directed by former stuntman Hal Needham, however, and consisting almost entirely of one long pursuit across multiple states, it’s comparatively short on maniacal high-speed driving and general vehicular mayhem. The Bandit leaps his iconic black Pontiac Trans Am over an incomplete bridge at one point, and leads plenty of patrol cars onto off-road detours that result in crashes. With the CB radio craze in full gear, the boys are constantly assisted by other drivers who alert them to the presence of “smokeys” (most prominently Jackie Gleason as a loudly belligerent Texas sheriff who follows the Bandit all the way to Georgia) and run interference for Bandit (who himself is running interference for Snowman, who’s driving the big rig with the beer). A convoy of truckers even physically hides the Trans Am within what CB lingo terms the “rocking chair,” with trucks in front of, behind and directly beside Bandit, making him effectively invisible to the passing police car.
Sequences like that one are clever and satisfying, but not as kinetically exciting as the stunts found in numerous other car-chase movies of the era. What made Smokey And The Bandit a smash, and remains just as enjoyable 43 years later, is the loose-limbed chemistry between Reynolds and Sally Field, who became romantically involved during shooting and went on to make a few more films together. Field plays Carrie, a runaway bride (she was supposed to marry the doofus son of Gleason’s sheriff—hence the latter’s anger and obstinance) who just sort of jumps into Bandit’s car, still in her wedding dress, and sticks around for the duration. The two stars reportedly improvised most of their dialogue, and they genuinely seem to revel in each other’s company; their banter achieves a unique blend of fast-paced zaniness and relaxed nonchalance that could be called good-ol’-screwball. (One scene, in which Field’s character prattles about her former dancing career, completely hidden from view underneath the wedding gown as she changes clothes, while Bandit broadcasts her monologue to Snowman over the CB and adds his own sardonic running commentary, would feel right at home in many a Preston Sturges comedy.) Smokey And The Bandit may be the most successful car-chase movie ever made—adjusted for inflation, it’s outgrossed every Fast and/or Furious entry—but it owes its enduring appeal to big smiles rather than hot wheels.
Availability: Smokey And The Bandit is currently streaming on Starz, DirecTV, and Fubo, and is also available for digital rental and/or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Fandango Now, VUDU, Microsoft, AMC On Demand, and Redbox.