Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

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Well, thank you, Mr. Bandit. And as the pursuer, may I say you’re the goddamnedest pursuee I’ve ever pursued. Now that the mutual bullshit is over, WHERE ARE YOU, YOU SOMBITCH?  Big Enos (Pat McCormick) wants to drink Coors at a truck show, but in 1977 it’s illegal to sell Coors east of the Mississippi River without a permit. Truck driver Bo ‘Bandit’ Darville (Burt Reynolds) agrees to pick up the beer in Texas and drive it to Georgia within 28 hours:  he’ll take his Trans-Am and act as a diversion to the tractor trailer carrying the booty by his colleague Cledus ‘Snowman’ (Jerry Reed). When Bo picks up runaway bride Carrie (Sally Field), he attracts the attention of Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Angry that Carrie has run out on the wedding to his son, Justice embarks on a high-speed chase after Bandit across Arkansaw right back to Georgia When you tell somebody something it depends which part of the United States you’re standing in as to how dumb you are. Stuntman Hal Needham moved into Burt Reynolds’ poolhouse when his marriage broke up. When they shot Gator they found nobody could get Coors beer east of the Mississippi so Needham started scribbling on legal pads and came up with a screenplay with terrible dialogue involving the transportation of beer across state lines. The story was improved with contributions from producer Robert Levy. It then got a rewrite from James Lee Barrett and Charles Shyer & Alan Mandel. With Reynolds (reluctantly) attached, the movie gave Needham his directing debut and it grossed second only to Star Wars in 1977 (and Reynolds had turned down the role of Han Solo!) This went stratospheric on a global scale. Why did it strike such a chord, not just in the US, where the southwest drive-in circuit was practically the only logical destination for the good ol’ boy persona Reynolds had perfected in White Lightning and its sequel, Gator, which he directed and which he was now keen to leave behind? It has a simplicity that goes back to the Keystone Cops, a pure exercise in slapstick and stunts that pivots on one long car chase, from the beginning to the end of the film, with an exploitation core of the redneck trickster character:  it could only be played by Reynolds, who embodied charm, daring and guile in an enviable physique.  He also had a unique way with put-downs which he did with a smirk and a wink that made you love him.  He’d been commandeering that style for a decade, even before he made it big with Deliverance. He was a star beloved of audiences after that and this catapulted him to the number one position in the box office for five straight years after the previous five hadn’t seen him outside the Top 10. His easygoing persona, wisecracking and sex appeal made him catnip to audiences. The Seventies were a particularly good era for road movies too; CB radio was popular and trucks were big news:  Cledus gets roughed up by bikers in a bar and he responds by showing us the motorsickle era is over when he tramples the gang’s machines – trucks trump bikes! Field’s naturalistic acting style makes her relationship with Bandit totally believable and Fred the bassett hound (Burt had one called Clyde) just makes us love him even more.  Without a comic foil however the setup would not work and the great Gleason is superb as the pesky ornery sheriff with an idiot son:  There’s no way – no way! – you could come from my loins.  First thing I do when we get home is punch your mama in the mouth! He’s loathsome, funny, irascible and encumbered with a jackass offspring so you hope he doesn’t suffer too much – for maybe just a minute. It’s a buoyant, feel good outing with a convoy and what amounts to a demolition derby. For the audience the prospect of getting one over on The Man is irresistible and of course what we have here is a community rallying to help an innocent anarchist over the state line. This was hugely influential on the culture – as The Dukes of Hazzard and The Fall Guy would prove, with everything crystallised by Reynolds’ screen character writ large across primetime TV for years to come. Sublime, existential entertainment. That’s a big 10-4!

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Brubaker (1980)

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That’s murder they’re talking about in there. And if they condone it, how are you gonna turn around and tell these guys why they’re locked up? 1969 Arkansas. Posing as an inmate at Wakefield Prison, the new warden of the penitentiary, Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford), witnesses firsthand the scams and abuse inflicted upon the prisoners by the staff (maggot-ridden food, paying for medical care) and the prisoners upon one another – rape, bullying, violent beatings. After revealing his true identity when a prisoner in the tank Walter (Morgan Freeman) takes another Larry Lee Bullen (David Keith) hostage and threatens to kill him, Brubaker brings much-needed reform to the prison with the help of supporters: trustee (prisoner turned gamekeeper) Dickie Coombes (Yaphet Kotto) and administrator at the board of governors Lillian Gray (Jane Alexander). But not everyone is happy especially not the prison governors who are profiting from years of graft. When the benefactors of the old corrupt system inside the building, like Huey Rauch (Tim McIntire) and Roy Purcell (Matt Clark) are threatened by the changes, Brubaker’s battles really begin and he realises that Dickie is correct to warn him that innocent people are going to die to prove his point … Accomplices to the Crime:  The Arkansas Prison Scandal by Thomas Murton and Joe Hyams was adapted by W.D. Richter (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) and it’s a striking and compelling film of social injustice directed by Stuart Rosenberg, based on Murton’s experiences when he was appointed under Governor Rockefeller to reform an an unprofitable prison.  The inmates were slave labour for local business, the crops on the 15,000 acres were being poisoned, the canned food was being stolen by prison officers and sold on while the inmates starved. When he discovered dozens of men had been murdered and put in unmarked graves he was dismissed. Redford is quite brilliant as the man who is at first in there undercover and then breaks out in order to save an habitual criminal who then becomes a trustee. He understands he has to play the system to make humanitarian gains but finally the demands are too much even when proposed by the woman who wanted him in there, Gray (Alexander). Freeman’s role is small but astonishing – when he sings Respect with David Keith’s neck in his hands you listen. It’s tautly written, brutal and flawlessly staged.  Rosenberg of course is the man responsible for that other great prison movie, Cool Hand Luke. This is a devastating indictment of corruption and graft and there simply isn’t a false moment.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

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Color me gone! A mechanic (Dennis Wilson) and a driver (James Taylor) live only to race and maintain their grey 1955 Chevy. Heading east from California with no particular agenda, they give a girl (Laurie Bird) a ride, and en route she incites jealousy between the men by sleeping with them both. Meanwhile, the trio encounters an overbearing 1970 Pontiac GTO driver (Warren Oates) who makes up stories about his life and agrees to race them to New York, each side putting at stake their most prized possession: their car… Stunningly shot (by Gregory Sandor though credited to union member Jack Deerson), almost dialogue-free, this seminal road movie (when that term really meant something) is a showcase of cinematic poetry in motion exhibiting the performing talents of two of the most important music stars of the era. Taciturnity is their mojo as they engage in this eastern, a reversal of the traditional drift of men across the continent, living in the moment.  Oates is remarkable as the man living his own personal fantasy. It helps if you’re a car freak but it’s not necessary. This is a study of a society without a point. Turn on. Tune in. Drop out. Directed by Monte Hellman from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer (who plays a hot rod driver), Will Corry and uncredited contributions from Floyd Mutrux. Absolutely iconic.

American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.