I WATCHED SMOKEY and the Bandit II (1980) the way most people do: by accident.
It was late at night and I’d been drinking. The plan was to catch a few minutes of this mess and go to bed. I figured one Burt Reynolds cliché would make a fine nightcap. As expected, Part II was lazily acted, poorly written and one of the biggest cashgrabs since Let’s Make a Deal was on the air.
And then, I saw this:
Yep, that’s a pregnant elephant’s trunk between Mr. Mustache’s legs. Burt then proceeded to get flipped onto the back of the pachyderm like Mary Lou Retton winning the gold four years later. Satisfied beyond all expectation, I decided it was time for bed. But then Smokey and the Bandit II got weird. Really weird. Marcel-Duchamp-would-be-proud weird.
Every time I gripped the remote to turn it off, Smokey and the Bandit II just kept devolving into disjointed plots and strange set pieces and unreal dialogue. After the credits rolled, I went to sleep thinking this was (enjoyably) the worst movie I’d ever seen. But, I woke up thinking Smokey was a few subtitles away from being a French new wave flick.
Specifically, it seemed to have an accidental kinship with Jean-Luc Godard’s avant garde classic, Weekend (1967).
I know what you’re saying: “I wish the Statler Brothers were in a Godard movie.” I agree. I’m on your side. Just stick with me here.
Weekend is famously (famously for movie nerds, at least) Godard’s last commercially funded movie. It was his final middle finger in a career filled with gleefully lewd gestures to filmmaking. In the movie, upper crust Parisians, Corrine and Roland, take off on the road to steal a big wad of family inheritance. Along the way, Godard drops them into several circles of hell that all resemble various aspects of the French motorway. Fire and blood and crashes make frequent appearances. So do long shots of Maoist, anti-capitalist monologues, Emily Brontë and a host of visually appealing nonsense. Along with Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marianbad, Weekend is that quintessential punch line about French films being confusing with no real payoff. However, repeated watching reveal a strong comment on counterculture and society itself.
Smokey and the Bandit II is the sequel to Burt Reynold’s stunt-tastically smarmy good-old-boy hit. If I need to describe it more, you probably stopped reading long ago.
Sounds like these two have nothing in common except that they were both shot with film cameras, right? But while Godard was purposely needling viewers about consumerism and the Sixties in his film, Bandit director Hal Needham inadvertently made a strong comment about consumerism in the Eighties.
Blood brothers if there ever were a pair.
Here are some of the similarities that jumped out:
Excruciatingly Long Opening Sequences
WEEKEND: While Corrine and Roland hash out the brief plan to kill her parents for money, we are treated to a disorienting dialogue about Corrine’s recent sex orgy, which includes a saucer of milk and an erotically-placed egg. As far as plot and overall sexiness are concerned, you could hit the fast forward button and be fine.
SMOKEY: Here we get a solid fifteen minutes of, “Hey, what’s the old Bandit gang up to these days?” With the answer being, of course, “Oh, not much. Jerry Reed is a professional semi-truck racer, Sally Field is once again marrying that eunuch she ditched in the first movie and Burt Reynolds and his mustache have become alcoholics.” This, too, could have been solved with about two lines of dialogue. But, as I discovered, overindulgence is the biggest bond these two share.
At the heart of both films is a man and a woman on a ruthless quest for money.
WEEKEND: Weekend is a cross-France quest to kill one of the protagonists’ parents and collect inheritance.
SMOKEY: The plot here revolves around a bet that Bandit and Sally Field can’t deliver a pregnant elephant to the Republican National Convention in Dallas in three days’ time. If they do, they get $400,000. As usual, Jackie Gleason’s Buford T. Justice has other plans and chases them well beyond his jurisdiction (While also portraying a homosexual sheriff and a Canadian Mountie). Oh, also, Dom DeLuise plays an Italian gynecologist-turned-makeshift veterinarian.
WEEKEND: Godard’s seemingly apocalyptic French countryside is littered with more debris and flaming wrecks than JG Ballard’s entire printed output. After the most famous tracking shot in cinema history the amount of destroyed cars in the background grows and grows to humorous proportions.
SMOKEY: We’re talking about the sequel to a car-chase flick. That means there needs to be more of everything and that’s what viewers get. The finale itself involved what looked like 50 cop cars and 50 semi-trucks. None of which were operational by the end.
Again, overindulgence galore. In both cases there is no value put on these expensive machines or the lives that control them.
Red, White and Blue
WEEKEND: The colors of France’s flag are embedded into the film, deepening Godard’s comment. For example, that tracking shot famously has several red, white and blue cars lined up next to one another.
SMOKEY: Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you, The Statler Brothers.
Obstacles Standing in the Way of Greed, Other Than Cars
WEEKEND: Oh, not much. Just a shaggy hippie who may or may not be god, a herd of sheep, Tom Thumb and Emily Bronte, sandwich-eating garbage men rambling on about socialism and cannibal cults. Pretty standard stuff.
SMOKEY: An entire wooden roller coaster, among others.
WEEKEND: An upper-class couple ignore the decaying morality around them—Roland at one point lets Corrine get raped just so he won’t miss getting a ride—as they seek to inherit a fortune already owned by bourgeois parents.
SMOKEY: Three working class people destroy everything in their path in order to deliver a pregnant elephant and collect a wealthy father and son’s money. They have no scruples about the havoc they have created because it is all in the name of money. You could put a Wall Street-era Mitt Romney behind the wheel and you’ve got Bane Capital: The Movie.
In the end, we are left with an empty spot in our heart, clearly telling us that neither plan is right and that humanity might have punched a one-way ticket to doom.
Dementia of the Soul
WEEKEND: Three minutes after something awful happens, like the aforementioned rape or countless other bloody catastrophes, the main characters force their way forward on as if it never happened. There is money to be made, after all.
SMOKEY: Three minutes after destroying a roller coaster or getting Terry Bradshaw to help run interference, nobody seems to be too concerned with what’s in the rearview mirror. The only concern is Dallas and $400,000.
Humanity’s Win-at-all-Costs Nature
WEEKEND: “They don’t want progress, they want to be first.” –random dude dressed as Tom Thumb, reading from a book.
SMOKEY: Hello? He is Burt Reynolds. Not even Jackie Gleason playing three roles (Excess, ahoy!) will keep our hero from victory and riches.
WEEKEND: Scenes of destruction and chaos are almost never followed with any logical progression. A shot of Roland and Corrine accosting a young man for his car is dovetailed by Napoleon making a speech in a meadow without a blink. To many this may seem lazy and haphazard on Godard’s behalf. But the jarring changes are meant to disrupt the flow of the film and point fingers.
SMOKEY: On the other hand, Smokey and the Bandit II is lazy and haphazard and points the finger directly at itself. Nobody was trying. Every actor seemed to be imagining what speedboat they’d buy with the paycheck. Whoever edited this thing accidentally mimicked Godard’s cut-and-paste technique , providing the films’ most striking similarity (For example, one scene exiting Mississippi seems to lead them directly into the Mojave Desert). Unexpectedly, because of this hacksaw job, we are treated to a glimpse of 80s excess and corner-cutting that led to so much turmoil in the political and financial world. Tell your mustache, thanks, Burt!
WEEKEND: Novelist Julio Cortazar was a major influence on this Godard movie.
SMOKEY: Burt Reynolds can’t pronounce Cortazar.
WEEKEND: In the end, we are shown that the hippie culture of the 60s and humanity’s greed battle one another in a way that will never end, much like the Vietnam War which raged on during this film’s shooting. All the flower child idealism will not erase society’s wrongs and all of the money in the world can’t hide you from ugliness.
SMOKEY: When this movie was released in 1980, a former movie star was charming his way into the White House, Wall Street was set for a major boom and the compact disc was introduced by Sony. Things were good and getting better, so Smokey and the Bandit II attempted to give people everything they wanted—car crashes, love scenes and Chuck Yeager cameos. Not unlike 1980s society trying to get everything it wanted. But, like society as a whole, few were happy with the results. Just like society, we can almost always blame Dom DeLuise.
What we are left with is two movies, made 13 years apart, that take place on the road. And on those journeys we discover more about those eras than we ever imagined The Statler Brothers dressed as Uncle Sam could teach us.