“As soon as I get home, the first thing I’m gonna do is punch your mama in the mouth.”
That line is uttered by Sheriff Buford T. Justice, his bayou drawl practically dripping off his tongue, about half way through Smokey and the Bandit. And when he says this to his shockingly inept son, Junior (Mike Henry), we just about believe he’ll follow through on the promise.
You see, Junior was all set to marry Carrie (Sally Field), but she ditched the poor oaf at the last minute and met up with the Bandit (played by Burt Reynolds, his Fuller Brush moustache fully intact), who’s hauling beer across the Georgia state line with his long-suffering trucker friend, Cletus. Justice isn’t too happy about the situation, and makes it his personal mission to take the Bandit down.
Looking back on this quasi 70’s classic, we can pretend it has merit for all the terrific car chases, Sally Field’s pluck and charm, Jerry Reed’s pleasant enough sidekick, or Reynold’s doesn’t-quite-hold-up-now sex appeal, but we’d be fooling ourselves: Smokey and the Bandit is a formula film, through and through, and the single best reason to watch it is for Gleason’s Oscar-worthy performance as Justice, a tour-de-force of comic timing that must have shamed his co-stars to no end. Not only does he have the movie’s best lines, he delivers them with a level of diseased contempt I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Every syllable is an aneurysm waiting happen; each punctuation mark spat with complete disgust.
His entrance is a classic: Having pulled over a couple of would-be carjackers, he gives one of them a swift kick in the ass to make his point, and, in a rush, puts their hands on the car and warns them not to flee before back-up arrives. He leaves, but not before telling the thugs not to play with themselves. “You can think about it, but don’t do it.” It’s a terrific first glimpse at a villain who, against all odds, becomes more hilarious in his villainy as the movie progresses.
The Bandit gets away, of course, because this is Hollywood. But by the end, we’ve laughed so hard at poor Buford’s attempts to catch his prey, we could probably shed a tear or two for him: somehow, almost implausibly, we were hoping he’d make the catch!
It’s a great performance smack in the middle of a mediocre movie.