Rolling Thunder: Bullets, bikinis, badasses and black Trans-Ams. Two: Smokey & the Bandit

In a new series of articles entitled Rolling Thunder, Mike from Chin Stroker VS Punter takes a nostalgic look back at shows like The A-Team, The Fall Guy, Street Hawk, Knight Rider, The Dukes of Hazzard, Airwolf and more. Sharing memories and thoughts on key episodes, vehicles, theme tunes and larger than life characters, to explore a world of bullets, bikinis, badasses and black Trans-Ams.

Now we’ve got the introductions out of the way, allow me to preface our look at 80s TV shows, featuring badasses in even more badass vehicles, with the movie that arguably started it all…

My fascination with sports-car driving action heroes probably predated Smokey and the Bandit (1977). In fact, I have clear memories of fetishising the Batmobile from the Adam West 60s Batman show. There was a very popular die-cast version of it produced by Corgi in the 70s that, along with the similarly metallic, disc phaser-shooting Starship Enterprise, was incongruously popular with kids of the era (as I previously noted, we had to rely on the past for our entertainment). The Corgi reproduction of the Lotus Esprit submarine car from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) also got decent play. But aside from those, it was basically fucking Herbie or nothing.

My memories of Smokey and The Bandit are also tied to my early memories of The Dukes of Hazzard, but if I had to pick one based on impact, it has to be the former (and to a lesser degree Burt Reynolds’ other redneck romances). It’s a film that looms large in my childhood for a number of reasons, primarily as it was just such a home video hit in our early VHS-adopting household. However, it should be noted the version we had was recorded from ITV, so while it got major play, it was the edited-for-TV version (known in much of Europe as Smokey and the Bandit Ride Again). But while it was toned down, this PG cut still had enough bawdy language to retain an illicit appeal I’ve always recalled as having been great for bonding with my father, while inviting much disapproval from my mother.

It was probably the increased slapstick tone (with a plot that revolves around transporting a pregnant elephant across the country) of Bandit 2 that afforded the film such great rewatch value and guaranteed its ubiquity in our house. But before long, it would also be joined by the 1977 original, as well as Hal Needham’s paean to the stuntman Hooper from 1978 and the even more cartoonish Cannonball Run series. And central to all these films, was the sheer charisma of Burt Reynolds.

Reynolds’ star may have already been on the wane in the early 80s, but in our house, he was truly loved. With a trademark laugh that predated the raucous Eddie Murphy calling card, Reynolds’ easy charm made you feel that there wasn’t a single situation in existence he couldn’t extricate himself from using charisma and good luck alone. In one particular scene in Hooper, our titular hero is confronted by a group of aggressive toughs in a bar, and proceeds to count them before pointing out it’s not a fair fight… and that they’re going to need more guys. It’s a perfect example of that cocky, breezy and effortlessly watchable persona.

Second only to Reynolds was his wheels, which for Smokey and the Bandit was his iconic Trans-Am – the Trigger to his Roy Rodgers-inspired Bandit. Now I must admit, I know little to nothing about cars beyond what I managed to glean from film and TV between 1977 and 1987… But even I know what a Trans-Am signifies. Making a film set in the 80s and need to show your antagonist is a cocky prick? Give him a Trans-Am (or maybe a Corvette or at least a Camaro). But thanks to Burt, that sleek black and gold Trans-Am became a a potent sign of virility. This is probably why, several years later, Glen Larson’s super-hero car in Knight Rider simply had to be cast the same way, and why Bruce Springsteen chose to include “Burt Reynolds in that black Trans Am” as one of his iconic men and their vehicles in 1980’s Cadillac Ranch.

When Burt himself starred as Sonny Hooper, the self-proclaimed greatest stuntman alive (and clearly a cypher for director and ex-stuntman Hal Needham) preparing to risk his life for fortune and glory jumping an insurmountable chasm, he of course did so in a Trans-Am. Although this may have had something to do with Burt’s deal with Pontiac, makers of the Trans-Am and Firebird. In fact, Reynolds would receive a new Trans-Am every year from Pontiac until eventually they stopped turning up; so related to Reynolds’ persona and success was the car, that the discontinuation of this perk was viewed by the man himself as an unambiguous sign his career had flatlined.

In each Bandit sequel, the new model Trans-Am was rolled out and would feature heavily in the marketing and of course the film itself. But it was what the car did that really captured the imagination of every boy my age. It wheel-span, skidded, out-ran the Kojak’s with Kodaks and jumped. It bloody well jumped. I’m not sure if it was through The Bandit or The Dukes of Hazzard that I first saw a car-jump, but it captured my imagination like nothing else. Wheel spins, hand break turns around corners and jumps across gorges and conveniently placed mounds of construction materials became as synonymous with my youth as the leap out of a window onto horseback and shooting a gun out of the hand of a bad guy for preceding generations of cowboy-fixated kids. There is also a romanticising of the denizens of these southern roads in Bandit. As stuntmen would be mythologised in Hooper, Bandit portrays truck drivers as a community of outlaws, existing free from the mundane shackles of society in a twilight world where membership was as simple as having a total lack of respect for the law and being complicit via CB radio, a cultural craze these films would stoke. Hell, they even had their own language. I remember owning a copy of the CB Radio Slang Dictionary. That’s how I knew (and remember to this day) a ’10-200′ means one is going for a poo.

The first film featured the 1977 (actually a customised 76) model that crashes its way through the film with a roaring engine (sampled from a Chevy), and is easily the coolest of the three. Its black and gold paint job and firebird-adorned hood are iconic, and it was easy to believe it could outrun Smokey Bears across the southern back roads. Needham had four cars to work with and utterly destroyed all of them, one of which shattered like a lightbulb after the memorable bridge jump. It would be after this jump the wonderful words the bridge is out would usher in a flutter of excitement for action fans for over a decade. By the late 70s, the Trans-Ams had a lot less grunt than their more muscular predecessors, so in an incident of life influencing art, the jump was performed in a rocket assisted car – a gag that would later crop up in Hooper.

In many ways Hooper was a (slightly) more dramatic presentation of Burt’s redneck outlaw persona and arguably was the better film. It takes that same cock-sure I’m going to get out of this through charm alone persona from Bandit and adds it to a character who knows he’s not getting any younger, with the next generation of computer-using, straight-edge stuntmen like Jan Michael Vincent’s Delmore ‘Ski’ Shidski snapping at his heels and threatening to make him redundant. And yet despite Hooper’s posturing and self-aggrandising achievements, there’s a real sense they’d ultimately be hollow and meaningless if not associated with his wider collection of family, friends and relationships. That learning-to-not-be-a-dick character now so familiar from Marvel Studios’ Thor, Iron-Man, Star-lord and Dr Strange was a great anchor for films like Hooper – and its no surprise it would eventually replace the Campbellian hero’s journey as the predominant myth archetype in pop culture storytelling. Of course, these meditations on mortality, and one’s value in an ever-changing world, were lost on me at the time as we ultimately see Burt make the jump, punch the director, and – in a moment of wonderful complicity – turn to us the viewer to give us the ­A-OK signal.

Hooper was a joy to me as a child and held the same kind of rewatch value in our home thanks to it being televised and recorded by us around the time we first got our. It was also great to see Reynolds reunited with Sally Fields from the Bandit series, and up against the very likeable James Best, better known at the time as one Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane from the Dukes of Hazzard. It was a pair that shared such an easy chemistry, that its surprising they never tried to replicate it elsewhere, as it was a lot less one-sided and two-dimensional than the Bandit’s similar dynamic with Jerry Reed. Dukes itself came out of the same cultural soup as the Bandit films, but more on that next time…

Bandit had 2 sequels; Part 2 (including the butchered Rides Again variant) is a likable, but fluffier affair than the first. It does however attempt to follow Hooper in looking at the insecurities and fragile ego of its hero and is still a favourite. That said, it does veer a little too far into the screwball world of Needham’s other Burt-franchise, The Cannonball Run at times – a series that has as much in common with the Rat Pack films of the 60s as it does the anarchic, ensemble cheekiness of the British Carry On films. If there’s one minor quibble about the wheels in the second film though, the car is something of a step down, as the 1980 Turbo model (dubbed, Son of Trigger) that was used just didn’t look as lean and cool as the 77 – and apparently the stuntmen hated it too, as it just had a lot less under the hood than its predecessor. That said, it did still manage two very solid jumps to round out the film during the the mayhem of the final act featuring countless cop cars being gleefully consumed by an armada of heavy-duty rigs. This insanity even eclipses the climactic destruction-porn of Hooper, making the first Bandit film seem almost cerebral in comparison.

The series limped to a Part 3 in 1983 that only featured Reynolds in a cameo with even Needham declining to return, choosing instead to direct top tier bollocks like Megaforce (1982). Part 3 sees Jackie Gleeson take the lead with Burt-sidekick Jerry Reed adopting the persona of The Bandit. The film had a troubled production, including a complete conceptual overhaul from its original conceit of Smokey Is the Bandit, with Gleeson himself taking on the Bandit mantle. We also get a downgrade in the vehicle department with the rather featureless 1982 model, that would gain ubiquity later that same year with its use in the Knight Rider television series. This sleeker model has a lot less character and feels closer to one of its Chevy counterparts such as the Camaro and suited the pseudo sci-fi needs of Michael Knight much better than the homespun wise-assery of the Bandit.

Wobbly sequels aside (don’t even get me started on the TV series) the legacy of these films, both in how they played into my childhood and on the (then) upcoming wave of TV action heroes, cannot be understated. Even though Bandit was ultimately beaten at the box office by Star Wars in 1977, it still became a much-quoted TV favourite on English playgrounds in the early 80s. Along with Hooper and its influence on the Fall Guy, the Bandit’s birthing of the Dukes of Hazzard helped kick-start what it meant to be a hero for a whole new generation.

Next Time: The Dukes of Hazzard