For many film lovers of a certain age, the summer of 1977 will always be remembered as the summer of 'Star Wars.' But believe it or not, there really were other films released that season aside from the George Lucas watershed -- and some even worth remembering. One such genuine cinematic highlight was 'Smokey and the Bandit,' a rootin' tootin', utterly ridiculous action spectacle that earned gobs of money, spawned its own little cottage industry of sequels, and cemented the '70s star status of both Burt Reynolds and Sally Field. Who needs lightsabers when you've got car crashes instead?
Reynolds stars as Bo 'Bandit' Darville, the best darn driver-for-hire in the South. Bo's never above evading the law if means turning a little extra profit, so he seems the ideal choice for Big Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick) when he needs to illegally transport a few hundred cases of beer across state lines from Texarkana into Atlanta. But on this trip, Bo and his long-suffering partner Cledus 'Snowman' Snow (Jerry Reed) will get more than they bargained for, thanks to the "runaway bride" (Sally Field) that Bo picks up along the way, and the relentless Sheriff Bufford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), who will stop at nothing to nab his greatest trophy -- the Bandit.
A full thirty years since its original release, 'Smokey and the Bandit' retains most of its charm, in large part thanks to its cast. Reynolds' winning performance reminds us why he was such a big star in the '70s -- he may be smug and smarmy, but with that huge grin and gallons of charisma to burn, somehow he gets away with it. To his credit, he also lets all of his co-stars shine, including a solid turn by Reed and, of course, Gleason, who turns Justice into the most memorable backwoods sheriff in pop culture history. And then there's Reynolds and his then real-life girlfriend Field, who have genuine, combustible chemistry. You wouldn't think it from her inauspicious early days as TV's 'Gidget' and 'The Flying Nun,' but Field is really quite flirtatious and sexy -- watching her and Reynolds spar throughout the movie is a true cinematic turn-on.
Ultimately, though, 'Smokey and the Bandit' isn't about its characters -- in fact, it isn't really about anything at all. This is just one long car crash of a movie, punctuated by plenty of pit stops for good ole boy comedy, and Reynolds and Field doing their over-the-gearshift romantic banter. Still, 'Smokey and the Bandit' remains superior to all of the demolition derby knock-offs it spawned (including 'Convoy' and 'Dukes of Hazzard') because it's so good-natured in its single-mindedness. The film's humor could have easily been crass or "political," but instead it really is just a classic ode to '30s screwball comedy set on wheels. Perfect nostalgia for those old enough to remember it, 'Smokey and the Bandit' is one road trip down memory lane worth taking again.
Remastering a vintage catalog title like 'Smokey and the Bandit' for High-Def would seem to present a pretty much thankless task. The aged source is just never going provide great demo material, so no matter how fantastic a job a studio does with like this, it can only pale in comparison with a modern release. That said, I have to take my hat off to Universal, as 'Smokey and the Bandit' is actually a very nice little remaster that looks darn good for a now thirty year-old film.
The source is been cleaned up rather well. Sure, there's some period-appropriate grain and the occasional faded blacks, but overall the image has some real pop to it. Colors are much improved over past video versions, especially the original DVD monstrosity that the studio released a few years back. Primary colors can be vivid and clean, and fleshtones are finally accurate -- poor Sally Field no longer looks all pink and pallid. Yes, dark scenes still suffer a bit from heavier grain and weak shadow detail, but thankfully 'Smokey' is a movie that mostly takes place during bright daylight, so the image generally boasts some impressive depth. Edge enhancement is also far less intrusive than on some other recent Universal HD DVD releases, such as the ultra-edgy 'The Jerk.' So while 'Smokey and the Bandit' certainly won't replace your demo disc of choice, it turns out to be a surprisingly good-looking ride, considering the circumstances.
Unfortunately, Universal wasn't able to work much magic with 'Smokey and the Bandit's audio. The film was originally exhibited in mono, and it shows. Despite an upgrade to Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround (1.5mbps), this may as well be a flat stereo mix.
Dynamics are dull. Common to '70s flicks, dialogue has that slightly clipped, muffled sound, especially the high-end. Low bass is particularly anemic, with even the most lively car chases lacking in impact. Don't expect much from the surrounds, either. The mix is largely confined to the fronts, with only very minor bleed to the rears on the loudest discrete effects. At least there are no major audio problems, such as distortion. Still, this is one boring remix.
For 'Smokey and the Bandit's HD DVD debut, Universal ports over the same extras found on the 2006 DVD "Special Edition" version the film. That's not saying much, though, as the supplements package on that version was fairly slim.
The heart of the package is the retrospective featurette "Loaded Up and Truckin': The Making of 'Smokey and the Bandit,'" which is a straightforward, 20-minute look back at this late '70s blockbuster hit. Director Hal Needham and stars Burt Reynolds and Paul Williams all reminiscence about how much fun it was to make the movie, but for once such rah-rah cheerleading seems genuine. There are also some interesting little tidbits here that I didn't know about, including info on the "real" Sheriff Buford, as well as some nice vintage footage of Reynolds and the late Jackie Gleason. The biggest disappointment on this one: where's Sally Field!?
The only other extra is "Snowman, What's Your 20," a throwaway feaurette, featuring a real trucker explaining various CB terms and the like.
Alas, Universal still seems to have an aversion to including theatrical trailers on their HD DVD releases. As such, there's no included trailer here for 'Smokey and the Bandit' (nor any of its sequels, for that matter). Ah well.
'Smokey and the Bandit' is still a fun, silly ride thirty years on. It may have virtually no plot, and the pace is probably far too slow for today's audiences, but I still found its characters likable and the energy infectious. It is also a solid if minor addition to Universal's growing library of catalog HD DVD titles -- the transfer is a nice surprise, as is the retrospective featurette, although the audio is about as exciting as a flat tire. No, this is not a must-own, but 'Smokey and the Bandit' remains a fun race down memory lane for the nostalgia-inclined.