Widely perceived as throwaway 70’s kitsch, Smokey and the Bandit deserves a second look for numerous reasons. Not the least of which is how far Hollywood has moved the PC threshold. Smokey and the Bandit is a mere 41 years old and it already feels wildly transgressive with its unabashed glorification of the the Southern rebel archetype, fast muscle cars, heterosexual romance, unforced biracial harmony and the sweet glory of black market Coors. Admittedly, it was also a seminal entry into a subgenre of trucker-themed 70’s films that canonized the mythology of the modern outlaw in his 18-wheel stagecoach. Smokey and the Bandit is properly viewed as a contemporary Western with cars and trucks instead of horses. Where classic Westerns glorified law and order, this film inverts those classical conventions and places your sympathies solidly with the outlaws. With a plot that amounts to an interstate beer run set in motion by a couple of oligarchs, Smokey and the Bandit sanctifies the presumed American virtue of profit and glory for its own sake.
Bandit: For the good old American life: For the money, for the glory, and for the fun… mostly for the money.
Featuring a star making turn as the Bandit, Burt Reynolds’ character is the kind of leading man Hollywood once served up regularly without reservations. A handsome, lovable rogue who was a brash, reckless show off, but had a romantic heart and sweet side underneath it all. Unequivocally masculine, charming, and tough, but unpretentious and easygoing at the same time. Intentionally written as his diametric opposite, Sally Field’s Carrie is neurotic, artsy, cosmopolitan and flaky. After a hasty roadside introduction, Carrie hurls herself into the Bandit’s caper after fleeing marriage to the son of the film’s villain, Sherriff Buford T. Justice.
As Justice, Jackie Gleason absolutely dominates the film with an outrageous performance. Spewing vitriol and contempt in every line, Gleason is a veritable supernova of politically incorrect piss and vinegar. Besides setting the template for Rosco P. Coltrane in the Dukes of Hazzard, Gleason’s character is also the bumbling, racist caricature of Southern law enforcement that will repeat itself in countless subsequent films. Seething with rage over the Bandit’s consistent ability to outmaneuver him, Justice is Ahab to Reynolds’ Moby Dick. Ironically, in our age of revolutionary orthodoxy, Gleason’s character has come full circle. While there’s never any doubt that the film wants you to root for the Bandit, the overwhelming prevalence of the outlaw antihero casts Justice’s most famous line as a perfectly valid commentary on the present.
Buford T. Justice: What we’re dealing with here is a complete lack of respect for the law.
Smokey and the Bandit is also noteworthy from a predictive programming perspective because it is unequivocally a film designed to mainstream the subversive nature of the CB radio. The Bandit and Cledus are consistently able to outfox law enforcement by tapping into the CB radio underground. The film portrays a perfectly coordinated #RESISTANCE whose allegiance to the Bandit and his mission are never in question. The Bandit was just trying to give the people what they wanted! It’s just plain un-American to deny Coors, dammit! I suggest that this was a precursor to the smartphone revolution and a critical building block towards the larger goal of global digital panopticism.
Most of all, Smokey and the Bandit succeeds because all it wants is to make you smile, laugh and cheer. While Hollywood seems increasingly reliant on CGI driven sci-fi and superhero franchises, Smokey and the Bandit feels downright organic and tactile by comparison. Films like Fast and Furious certainly lay claim to this film’s legacy, but there’s something refreshingly simple about Smokey and the Bandit. The car chases nowadays may be more outrageous and the actors more ripped, but the self-conscious multiculturalism feels forced and the cool, sophisticated outlaw is now a boring cliché. Perhaps it’s the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia, but this film feels like a pop culture high water mark. It may have been a harbinger of a deluge of SJW degeneracy to come, but it had a joyful, old fashioned spirit that’s sadly absent from any contemporary film you can name.