Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) review-a sellout sequel

Few movies have captured the zeitgeist quite like Hal Needham’s Smokey and the Bandit (1977).

Not only did this road action comedy include cultural touchstones like muscle cars, CB radios and country music, but the film’s breezy attitude and blatant anti-authoritarianism was pervasive in many other pieces of media that were popular at the time.

As such, Smokey and the Bandit became the second highest grossing film of 1977 behind George Lucas’ Star Wars, which also featured a colourful cast of characters trying to deliver some precious cargo under the eye of buzz-killing fascists.

Of course, nothing good lasts forever, and the rebellious spirit of the 1960s and 70s quickly turned to corporate pandering in the 1980s, where Wall Street and Reaganomics were the new flavour of the day.

Unfortunately, Needham also decided to sell out at the very start of the decade, making an uninspired sequel to Smokey and the Bandit that contains almost none of the charm or energy that made the original film so special.

One of the most immediate problems with Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) is its plot, which doesn’t even try to mix up the formula.

Just like last time, Bo “Bandit” Darville (Burt Reynolds) is tasked with delivering a big rig worth of illegal product to a client in record time, all the while dodging members of local law enforcement like Texas sheriff Bufford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason).

In order to pull this job off, Bandit enlists the help of his best friend Cledus (Jerry Reed) and old flame Carrie (Sally Field), who also serve as his moral barometer along the way.

The only major difference to the plot here is a matter of aesthetics, with Bandit and his crew delivering an adult elephant instead of 400 cases of beer.

A couple new characters are also thrown into the mix for good measure, including a shouty Dom DeLuise who adopts one of the worst Italian accents in cinema history.

But honestly, the uninspired nature of the plot could have been palatable if Needham also replicated the fun, easy-going tone of the first film, while maintaining his trademark automotive stunt work that thrilled audiences back in 1977.

Instead, Smokey and the Bandit II is mostly a slow, plodding affair that sidelines adrenaline-pumping car chases in favour of bad slapstick comedy, which sometimes comes across as an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic.

For example, a lot of the scenes involving the adult elephant are ripped right out of a live-action Disney movie, with an accompanying score that relies way too heavily on farty brass instruments to artificially pump up the humour.

Another consequence of writing a literal elephant into the script is that the characters have to make a pit stop every five to ten minutes to check on her wellbeing and participate in more unfunny schtick.

Because of this, the film’s pace consistently grinds to a halt, with any kind of impressive vehicular destruction being pushed far into the background.

To give you a better idea of what this dynamic looks like, the first genuine car chase in the movie takes place at around the one-hour mark and is over before you can blink.

While Needham does try and compensate for this imbalance by staging a massive demolition derby for the film’s climax, it’s too little too late by that point, and the entire exercise feels like a waste of time.

However, the movie’s poor pacing pales in comparison to the way Needham and his screenwriters treat their principal characters, some of whom have devolved into complete cartoon characters.

Burt Reynolds’ Bandit, for instance, receives an unflattering comedic makeover in this sequel, being portrayed as an incompetent clown and drunk as opposed to the charming rogue that audiences were introduced to in the first film.

While exploring a new layer of Bandit’s personality sounds interesting on paper, the filmmakers’ approach here is completely misguided, since they repeatedly subject this supposedly rugged hero to a bunch of humiliating skits.

This isn’t helped by the fact that Reynolds seems to be completely disengaged with the material, constantly smirking for the camera like he is reprising the character for an episode of SNL instead of a big-budget sequel to a sleeper hit.  

Sally Field’s character isn’t done any favours by the screenwriters either, since they backtrack on all the development she underwent in the original film.

If you’ll recall, the entire plot of Smokey and the Bandit revolves around Field hitching a ride with a complete stranger to get away from marrying Sheriff Justice’s son Junior, since he repulses her that much.

However, she’s back at the altar with Junior at the beginning of the sequel like nothing happened, because I guess the screenwriters couldn’t think of anything interesting to do with her except hit the reset button.

To make matters worse, Field’s character doesn’t contribute anything meaningful to Bandit’s smuggling operation once it gets underway, beyond serving as his love interest and becoming an increasingly vocal backseat driver.

At least Jerry Reed comes away from this sequel relatively unscathed, with his best friend character still coming across as down-to-earth and relatable despite all the over-the-top shenanigans surrounding him.

Unfortunately, not even some decent chemistry between the three leads can save Smokey and the Bandit II from being a lazy, cash-grab sequel, where it feels like the cast and crew all showed up due to financial obligations rather than some creative drive.

Reynolds even straight up admitted this in a 2016 interview with Ain’t It Cool News, calling himself and Needham “whores” for signing on to this project in the first place.

Even though critics shared Reynolds’ disdain towards this sequel, audiences still showed up in droves, making Smokey and the Bandit II the eighth highest box office draw of 1980.

However, everyday movie-goers must have sensed that Needham’s heart wasn’t really in it anymore, since the action-comedy franchise would never fully recover in terms of its popularity.

Not only did Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (1983) fail to retain much of the first two films’ cast and crew, but all future “Bandit” projects would be banished to the realm of mid-90s made-for-tv movies.

And while a new tv series is apparently in development, no real update has been given out to in almost a year, which says to me that this project may never see the light of day.

In this sense, Smokey and the Bandit II serves as a cautionary tale for ambitious filmmakers who would rather cash in on their intellectual property than pump it up with some creative passion: it probably won’t work out in the long run.

Verdict:

4/10

Corner store companion:

President’s Choice Virginia Variety Party Peanuts (because … the movie features an elephant, I guess. Hey, if the filmmakers aren’t going to put any effort into their craft, then why should I?)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Aug. 15, 1980

-Budget: $17 million (estimated)

-Box office: $66, 132, 626 million (worldwide)

-The film’s demolition derby finale was reportedly one of the biggest collective car stunts in movie history at that point. According to IMDB, it involved 60 stunt people, 100 cars and 18-wheeler trucks, and $250,000 worth of damages.

-Bandit’s 1980 Pontiac Trans Am is given its own credit at the end of the movie. The car is billed as “Son of Trigger,” which is a reference to actor Roy Rogers’ horse. 

Smokey and the Bandit II was released under the title “Smokey and the Bandit Ride Again” in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia.

-Surprise cameo: While the film is littered with real-life country singers, the most amusing cameo actually belongs to former Pittsburgh Steelers stars Terry Bradshaw and “Mean” Joe Greene, since they get to act as literal roadblocks for Bandit.

-Musical highlight: “Texas Bound and Flyin’” by Jerry Reed (it’s no “Eastbound and Down,” but this fun little number still grabs your attention at the very beginning of the film).