Movies You Gotta See:  ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ is a reminder that sometimes, being cool is the most important thing

By Jalen Maki

Photo courtesy of IMDb.

Jerry Reed sagely summarized the plot of the 1977 action comedy film Smokey and the Bandit in his absolute banger “Eastbound and Down”:

“The boys are thirsty in Atlanta/And there’s beer in Texarkana/And we’ll bring it back, no matter what it takes.

Got that? Good. But just in case you don’t, here’s a rundown of one of the most breezy and fun movies of the ‘70s:

Smokey and the Bandit starts in Atlanta, where a couple of rich dudes from Texas – Big Enos Burdette and his son, Little Enos – are sponsoring a driver in a race. The Enoses want to party it up after their guy wins, but they’re in a bit of a pickle: every good rager needs beer, and they’re currently dry. Enter Bo “Bandit” Darville (Burt Reynolds), who could best be described as a…legendary outlaw driver, I guess? How does one get that reputation, exactly? I’m not sure. Anyway, Enos and Other, Smaller Enos challenge Bandit to go to Texarkana, Texas, pick up 400 cases of Coors, and haul the bounty back to Atlanta within 28 hours. Everyone involved knows that transporting such cargo across state lines is against the law, but if Bandit pulls it off, he gets $80,000.00, which would be just shy of 415 grand in today’s money: A payday worth risking a few nights in the ol’ Crowbar Hotel for, in my opinion!

Enos Squared supply Bandit with a sick Pontiac Trans Am for the job, and he visits his old pal (and men’s fashion icon) Cledus “Snowman” Snow (Reed) to convince him to tag along. Bandit’s plan: Snowman will be in Bandit’s semi, hauling the trailer full of the bootlegged beer; meanwhile, Bandit will be driving the Trans Am as a “blocker,” distracting the cops from pulling Snowman over and finding the illegal freight. 

Bandit, Snowman, and Snowman’s trusty companion, a hound dog named Fred, cruise to Texarkana, load up the beer, and start to head back to Atlanta. All is going well until they run into a wedding gown-wearing woman named Carrie (Sally Field) standing on the road. Bandit picks her up, which draws the ire of Texas sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Carrie was supposed to marry Justice’s dimwitted son, Junior, but she got cold feet bailed on the ceremony. Justice and Junior learn that she’s riding with Bandit and take off in pursuit, but they’re unaware of the fact that they’re chasing someone trying to pull off the Longest Beer Run in History. Meanwhile, Bandit is dumbfounded by Justice’s doggedness because Carrie doesn’t immediately reveal that it was Justice’s kid that she left at the altar.

So, those are the bones of Smokey and the Bandit. A cross-Dixie chase occurs, hijinks ensue, and it’s just an all-around good time.

I say this as a compliment and with nothing but adoration for this film: I have the impression that the entire idea behind Smokey and the Bandit was simply to find a cool guy (in this case, Reynolds) and have them do something cool (drive a cool car while wearing a cool hat). The plot, as fun as it is, feels secondary to the sheer spectacle of the action and having a star at the center of it all. At the end of the day, you gotta give the people what they want, and what they want is to see Bandit pull some sweet 180 turns and maybe do a burnout or two. Toss in Field as a charming love interest, Reed as a wisecracking sidekick, and a slew of delightful oddballs to create a rich tapestry of characters and personalities, and boom, you’ve got a certified hit on your hands. What’s the movie actually about? What are they doing, and why? Who cares? Did you see the part where Bandit jumped a dismantled bridge? That ruled!

Apparently, a prerequisite to be a truck driver in the 1970s was to have a quick wit. The movie is nonstop quips and banter, and for some reason it’s at least 15% more effective when it’s delivered via trucker-speak over CB radio. Another reason why Smokey and the Bandit rips: roughly half of the characters have an awesome handle. Case in point, a guy driving a hearse is called “The Grave Robber.” I’ll repeat that: the hearse guy is called The Grave Robber. That unequivocally rocks! Another trucker goes by “Silver-Tongued Devil”; also awesome, even if it seems like he might’ve given that handle to himself. If you’ve ever seen Smokey and the Bandit, you’ve probably put some thought into what your handle would be. I never had a true nickname growing up (people call me “Jay” for short, which doesn’t really count), and I’m kind of thankful for that; back in the day, if my friends had taken it upon themselves to give me a moniker, they almost certainly would’ve come up with something juvenile and horrifying to hear said in public. But, if I did have a handle, I’d like it to be a tribute to my Wisconsin roots. Maybe Badger? Or Brewer? Cheese? We’ll workshop it.

While it’s a blast watching Bandit, Snowman, and Carrie be a trio of rule-of-law-disrespecting jokesters, it’s Gleason who steals the movie as Justice. Our three protagonists are having a grand old time as they traverse the back roads of the American South; meanwhile, Justice is perpetually irritated, not only by Bandit, but also by Junior and pretty much every other person he comes into contact with over the course of the several-hundred-mile pursuit, and it’s absolutely hysterical. If someone’s not saying something stupid or annoying to him, they’re contributing to the destruction of his police cruiser – a top-notch visual bit is how his car starts out in pristine shape, but as the movie goes along, it gets more and more demolished until it’s barely even recognizable as an automobile by the time the credits roll.

What Justice endures emotionally isn’t dissimilar. Gleason captures the essence an old Southern blowhard’s browbeaten exasperation in such a distinctly funny way that I find it hard to compare to anything else. The man is on an all-time heater for the entire movie, chewing up scenery every chance he gets. Everything about Gleason’s performance – his line deliveries, his timing, his facial expressions, his physicality – it’s all absolute gold, and it never fails to make me laugh. It’s one of my favorite comedic performances.

Someday, when aliens land on Earth and demand to see our species’ most acclaimed and cherished works of art, will the powers that be consider showing them Smokey and the Bandit? Probably not. But should they? Maybe! Look, I won’t pretend to know what an extraterrestrial could learn about humanity from staring at the Mona Lisa or reading The Grapes of Wrath, but what I can tell you is that if they want to get an idea about what it means to be cool in America, then Smokey and the Bandit is a key text. And, on top of that, it’s one of mankind’s most inspirational stories: In the end, despite the odds, they do what they say can’t be done.

Jalen’s columns, “Movies You Gotta See” and “The Free Play,” can be found online at

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