Mention Burt Reynolds to anyone who lived through the '70s — if they remember it with full clarity — and they'll probably say it was pretty much his decade. With the exception of fellow pretty boy Robert Redford, Reynolds was the Me Decade's most prominent matinee idol. Thanks to his breakthrough role in Deliverance and a bit of business where he posed butt-bald on a bearskin rug for Cosmo, a year didn't go by where Reynolds wasn't in two to three films, whether playing a tough but dashing football player, a tough but dashing cop or a tough but dashing outlaw. He sought occasions to stretch as the decade rolled on: Peter Bogdanovich even called on him to sing and dance in At Long Last Love. In CB lingo, that proved to be a big negatory.
But audiences loved the Florida-bred Reynolds when he was playing a good ol' boy, a cool cat who wore his Southern roots with pride, and it's that side of his persona The Belcourt celebrates Friday and Saturday night in a double bill of his '70s smashes. In 1973's White Lightning, Reynolds works his cornpone charm as Gator McKlusky, an incarcerated moonshiner who learns his brother was murdered by a sinister sheriff (Reynolds' Deliverance co-star Ned Beatty). To help the feds take down the crooked lawman, Gator starts prowling around again in a souped-up hooch-hauling sedan, keeping Smokey distracted while he gets the goods.
Apart from its status as the film whose side-winding score Quentin Tarantino can't stop sampling — Charles Bernstein, take a bow — White Lightning has to be one of the most gleefully redneck movies ever made. Underrated director Joseph Sargent (the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three) captures the Thunder Road South in all its rural, grungy, ass-backwards glory, and Reynolds saunters through the gritty locations with a king's confidence, as snugly at home as a pack of Kools in a work shirt's sleeve. With a tone that's even more anarchic than its first-rate car chases, White Lightning works as both a madcap B-movie demolition derby and an amoral gem of Southern-fried pulp.
The movie's second-unit director, stuntman Hal Needham, went on to direct Reynolds in the second movie of the two-fer, 1977's blockbuster Smokey and the Bandit. Consider this the comic flip side to White Lightning, as Reynolds plays the Bandit, a hard-driving legend who takes a highly illegal challenge to haul 400 cases of Coors from Texas to Georgia in 28 hours. With his sidekick Snowman (the underappreciated Jerry Reed) running the suds, Reynolds guns a badass Trans Am at rocket speed past a phalanx of bumfuzzled county mounties.
Which brings us to the late, great Jackie Gleason, whose turn as Bandit's crude porkchop adversary Buford T. Justice remains one of the most fearless, ferociously uproarious comic performances of the last century. A tour de force of foul-mouthed incorrectness. Gleason's racist, sexist, just-plain-wrong Justice sets the bar for every crooked lawman who ever graced a '70s hicksploitation movie. Indeed, what made Bandit so popular — it was the second-highest flick that year, behind a little thing called Star Wars — is the way it took the car-chase-filled hicksploitation movie exemplified by White Lightning and made it an over-the-top burlesque show. From the moment Reynolds looks straight into the camera and flashes his aw-shucks grin — which would congeal into a grimace by the time Reynolds & Needham Inc. trudged on to the likes of Stroker Ace — we know this flick and its conflicts are all shits and giggles.
Revisiting the movie, what I find fascinating is how appealing it makes the South look in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights era. Where Lightning just four years earlier portrays the South as pitifully stuck in its violent, reactionary ways, Bandit's South is a communal down-home playland where people of all races, creeds and colors band together (on the CB radio, natch) to help a friend in need. The progression from Deliverance to White Lightning to Smokey and the Bandit shows the South transitioning from pop-culture hellhole to mainstream wonderland. It's no coincidence that the appealing common element they all share is the cucumber-cool, speed-needing dude in the driver's seat, eastbound and down, loaded up and truckin'.
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