The Bandit (2016) Film Review from the 59th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival, a movie directed by Jesse Moss, and starring Mike Henry, Hal Needham, Burt Reynolds, Sonny Shroyer, and Paul Williams.
While Smokey and the Bandit and Burt Reynolds are now both regarded as movie icons, it wasn’t always certain that the film and it’s swaggering star would be remembered as such. Many forget that when production was still underway on the Southern-styled action comedy that observers had major doubts about it’s chances of doing well with audiences, to say nothing of turning a profit for the studio. It was only through the dogged determination and ingenuity of it’s unlikely director that Smokey was able to beat the odds and become the cinematic phenomenon that it is fondly recalled as, as The Bandit lovingly shows.
The son of Southern sharecroppers and a paratrooper in the Korean War, few expected Hal Needham to amount to anything, as he makes abundantly clear in interviews recorded before his tragic passing. Unjustly dismissed as dumb and unremarkable by many people he encountered over the course of his life, Needham cleverly managed to leverage his extensive experience engaging in manual labor and executing risky physical maneuvers into a prolific career as a movie and TV stuntman. He worked primarily on Western productions and regularly stood in for his friend and roomate, the aforementioned Burt Reynolds, but as his (and his roomate’s) resume grew, so did his ambitions.
Drawing parallels between the success story of it’s primary subject and the making of Smokey and the Bandit, the documentary quotes friends and colleagues of his who admit they were incredulous when they first heard that Needham, who didn’t have as much as a degree from a community college, was busy scribbling notes for a film of his own while on the set of Gator, another Reynolds vehicle. No less skeptical were the cast, with it being said that star Jackie Gleason’s part wasn’t actually in the script and required him to improvise on the spot, the studio, who sent a hatchet man down to Georgia to cut the movie’s already-measly budget by a million dollars, and the critics, who savaged the film as yet another Reynolds action flick when it made it’s debut in New York. It was only when Needham, a real life version of the “good ol’ boy” that Reynolds became known for portraying, suggested that they play Smokey for an audience that would appreciate it: Southerners. Smokey‘s fortunes quickly turned around after they did so, and the rest is film history.
The film had significant consequences for it’s leading partnership of Reynolds and Needham. While Smokey finally put to rest criticisms that the rough-and-tumble Reynolds couldn’t do comedies, it made others recognize Needham as the consequential presence he always wanted to be known as. By making a movie that almost everyone thought would fail miserably into the second highest-grossing film of 1977, the former farmboy and stuntman became a creative force to be reckoned with, culminating in his being given an honorary award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. As archival footage shows a defiant Needham thanking the people who doubted him for giving him the motivation to come so far, one almost wants to join the audience in laughter and applause for the man and his quintessentially American story.
It’s a simple rags to riches story, but The Bandit powerfully demonstrates why such stories resonate with us. We see it in the admiration of everyone from his son David Needham, who shares fond memories of his father, to Burt Reynolds, who reveals that the first thing he thought when he heard about his death-defying friend’s demise was “What could possibly kill him?” The world may be a poorer place without Needham, but his work and legacy continue to entertain and inspire others, with NASCAR racer Tony Stewart claiming that he has watched Smokey and the Bandit at least 200 times and country musician Toby Keith quipping that Southerners view the film as a documentary that affectionately chronicles life in the region. It’s tempting to think that even now, Needham is smiling down upon us, pleased that people still enjoy his passion project to this day. If you’re looking for something that is as authentic as it is inspiring, The Bandit is the ride for you.
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