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‘The Bandit’ (review)

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Produced by Amanda McBaine,
Jesse Moss, Danny Breen
Directed by Jesse Moss
Featuring Mike Henry, David Needham,
Hal Needham, Burt Reynolds,
Sonny Shroyer, Paul Williams

Entertaining doc about the making of the 1977 smash, Smokey and The Bandit, the friendship between the director, Hal Needham, and its star, Burt Reynolds, and the importance and bravery of Hollywood stuntmen.

That sums up the appeal and the problem of The Bandit; it’s about a lot of interesting subjects, but at only 84 mins., its lack of focus renders the film a bit thin.

In the early to mid 70s, Burt Reynolds was the biggest star in the world.  A huge sex symbol, but also a real man’s man, his star appeal was apparent.

Even notoriously picky critic– and film-nerd icon – Pauline Kael totally got it.  She appears here in a brief clip, offering an insightful analysis of Reynolds’ star quality, assessing that he could be the next Sean Connery….if he’d only stop holding back.

Reynolds was mostly known at the time for good ole boy action films featuring terrific stunts. Reynolds’ usual stunt double was a true badass named Hal Needham, a guy who worked his way up from a sharecropper’s son to being one of the most revered stuntmen in the business (as well as a largely successful – if not critically celebrated – film director). In an interview here, a colleague describes Needham as “a nice guy….not a Rhodes scholar”.  And another colleague commented, with genuine admiration, that he’d never seen someone do so much with so few tools.

Needham was fearless and wanted to make his star look good; Reynolds, a former stuntman himself, respected the hell out of Needham and knew he needed him to look good.  They become fast, and loyal, friends.  And not long after, roommates – at a swingin’ 70s bachelor pad in Hollywood – for eleven years!

Needham eventually really, really wanted to direct, so enlisted his friend – the biggest star in the world – to star in his debut about a character named The Bandit, who, with his buddy played by Jerry Reed, smuggles a truckload of Coors beer to the South, where (at the time) it was illegal to sell.  (Shades of Yuengling Lager; my fellow East Coast transplants living in LA will understand.  Sigh….)

The doc cuts between making-of vignettes and talking heads, behind the scenes stunt work and some terrific clips from TV talk shows, commercials, etc of the era.  There’s a very amusing moment where a young Barbara Walters giggles like a schoolgirl at an off the cuff witticism by Reynolds, some very fun ads for a failed toy called The Stuntman, et al.

We are also treated to modern-day interviews with Reynolds, with clips of him supervising and offering advice at his acting school, etc.

The aspects that really shine through are a huge respect for stunt people, Reynolds’ and Needham’s great love and respect for each other, and the impact this tiny little movie had on people.

It’s telling that Reynolds was understandably incensed that Universal held the premiere of Smokey in NYC.  The film was made for the “flyover” states, for the South – and it was HUGE there.  We see, late in the film, testimonials from Toby Keith, Brad Paisley, and others for whom Smokey and The Bandit is a major film touchstone in their lives.  The way other adult fans gush about devouring Ghostbusters and Star Wars during their childhood, these guys cite Bandit as the one of the major, important films in their lives.

And, as a doc made by CMT, The Bandit was obviously not made with the Jodorowsky’s Dune crowd in mind.  However, if you do have an interest in all of film history, including influential, hugely popular films that speak to a specific time and place, The Bandit is certainly worthwhile.

It’s not a great film, the lack of focus is detrimental (though hardly disastrous), and it feels almost defiantly superficial.  But it’s never less than entertaining, and it contains enough insights – especially if you have no previous knowledge of the film’s history, the popularity of good ole boy cinema, or Reynolds’ stardom in particular – that even film scholars should give it a look.

(On a tangential note, for an excellent doc about stunt people, check out the 2004 film Double Dare.  Great stuff).

The Bandit airs tomorrow, August 6 at 10pm ET/PT on CMT

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