Bandit Goes Country (1994) review – a shoddy new coat of paint

While film studios used to draw their power from the marquee stars they had under contract, it seems like the more valuable resource in the entertainment industry these days is intellectual properties.

So instead of focusing a lot of time and money on producing the next “John Wayne” or “Jimmy Stewart” picture, these movie executives are far more interested in cultivating big money-making franchises that allows them to produce as many sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and ancillary TV shows as possible.

Because of this, a significant amount of online discourse is now being dedicated to how these various studios are managing their IPs, with Disney and WarnerMedia currently catching a lot of heat for their handling of Star Wars and DC Comics projects, respectively.

Even though these multi-billion-dollar companies should be subject to public criticism, we should always keep things in perspective and realize that this dynamic could always be alot worse.

Because in my experience, I don’t ever think I’ve seen a film studio fumble the ball harder than Universal’s stewardship of the Smokey and the Bandit franchise.

After all, the original Smokey film starring Burt Reynolds became a cultural and box office juggernaut in 1977 by tapping into the rebellious spirit and easy-going attitude that characterized that particular decade.

And while the sequel that followed in 1980 was still financially successful, a lot of the magic had been lost by that point, causing director Hal Needham to sit out Part 3 altogether.

The third Smokey movie turned out to be such a thermonuclear disaster both in front of and behind the camera that the studio didn’t even touch the property again until the mid-1990s, greenlighting a series of four made-for-TV movies for Universal Television’s “Action Pack” programming block.

The first of these TV movies to emerge was Bandit Goes Country (1994), which starred Brian Bloom as the title character and saw the return of Needham to the franchise for the first time in over a decade.

Despite these familiar trappings, it’s pretty obvious that Universal was just hoping to produce a generic, low-effort action-comedy series with the “Bandit” name slapped on it.

Because without that title, this movie has no personality of its own and seems like it is riding off the coattails of other mid-90s TV schlock like Renegade or Walker, Texas Ranger more than anything.

Before you even get into the plot, Bandit Goes Country is already a mess from a conceptual level, since it’s very hard to figure out how it relates to the original three feature films.

IMDB describes this TV movie as something that “appears to be a prequel to the Smokey and the Bandit films” based on, I’m guessing, how young Bloom is compared to Reynolds during his first appearance as the character.

However, that theory goes right out the window as soon as you realize that Bandit Goes Country takes place in the 1990s and not in the 1960s like a proper prequel would require.

Additionally, the cast of this TV movie don’t feature any younger versions of the characters from the original trilogy, including Snowman (Jerry Reed) or Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason).

Even some of the more superficial elements of those original movies are missing, with the Bandit’s iconic Pontiac Trans Am being traded in for a Dodge Stealth.

So based on that information, I can only conclude that Bandit Goes Country is more of an attempt to reboot the franchise with a fresh coat of paint, completely unburdened by any past continuity or canon.

While I can respect the impulse to try something different and not rely on Baby Boomer nostalgia to get by, it’s clear that the filmmakers didn’t have any clear idea of where to take the character using this blank canvas.

This lack of direction is most visible in the movie’s story, which just meanders for 90 minutes and gets bogged down in a bunch of useless subplots.

The main storyline here involves Bandit returning to his hometown, where he attempts to make peace with a rival community that’s held a grudge against his people for generations.

But instead of sticking to that simple premise, the filmmakers constantly take you on these narrative detours that don’t amount to much.

These distracting subplots include:

-Bandit being hired to transport country music star Mel Tillis to his upcoming concert.

-Bandit being hounded by government agents who are investigating his cousin’s music pirating business.

-Bandit attempting to rekindle a romance with his childhood sweetheart (Elizabeth Berkley).

-Bandit trying to help another one of his old girlfriends marry her new beau in secret (since he hails from this rival community).

-Bandit picking up this random female hitchhiker, who does nothing throughout the whole movie until she decides to shack up with his cousin at the last minute for no reason (the pair had previously shared one small scene together).

With all these things happening at the same time, Bandit Goes Country feels like you’re watching someone play a redneck-themed RPG, where they decide to tackle all the side missions and completely ignore the main quest.

Story structure aside, what really sinks this television reboot is the noticeable lack of impressive automotive stunt work.

After all, this kind of thing was Needham’s big claim to fame as a director and you think that he would cook up something really special for his grand return to the series that made him a household name.

But outside of an early scene involving a light aircraft landing on a moving flatbed truck, the movie plays it pretty safe and seems reluctant to put its main character in any kind of mortal peril behind the wheel.

While I’m sure that Needham and his crew were constrained by a modest TV budget, that doesn’t excuse the sheer lack of imagination that ends up on screen.

To try and compensate, the filmmakers really lean into Bandit Goes Country’s status as a comedy, with Mel Tillis and his manager (Charles Nelson Reilly) taking on the lion’s share of the movie’s slapstick gags.

Unfortunately, most of these jokes fall completely flat and feel just as half-baked as the stunt work, something that’s become a recurring pattern in Needham’s career through films like Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981) and Body Slam (1986).

The cast also don’t make a very strong impression overall, with Bloom being the worst offender as the Bandit.

To be fair, the actor was definitely set up to fail from the beginning. Stepping into Reynolds’  boots is no easy task, especially if audiences were only familiar with Bloom’s work through the long-running soap opera As the World Turns at that point.

While Bloom would later showcase his range in the realm of voice acting, he’s completely lost in this project, being content with playing a smirking douche instead of a charming rogue like the role requires.

He’s also not done any favors by the wardrobe department, who decided to dress him up in the worst kind of mid-90s fashion, including a belt buckle with a giant “B” printed on it (like he’s a low-rent superhero).

But in Bloom’s defense, I imagine even Laurence Olivier would have trouble wringing a good performance out of this piss poor material, which seems like it was slapped together over a weekend.

Ultimately, I’m still kind of baffled that Universal Television saw fit to broadcast Bandit Goes Country at all.

It’s so flavourless and devoid of any similarity to the original source material that I can’t imagine it being a great starting point for the studio’s Action Pack programming block (that launched the same month this movie aired).

At least Another Midnight Run (1994), which I screened back in 2019, bore some resemblance to the feature film it was spinning off from in terms of characters and plot, ensuring that someone must have enjoyed it.

With Bandit Goes Country, it seems like Needham and his crew couldn’t even be bothered to put in the bare minimum effort to satisfy old Smokey fans or to even reel in new viewers.

And while I haven’t seen the three remaining TV movies in this series, it’s obvious that Universal’s poor management of this franchise in the 1990s lead to its untimely death, since all other attempts at another revival have sputtered out.

But at the end of the day, that might be for the best.

Our current media landscape is completely built on the cynical resurrection of old nostalgic properties, and we don’t need another re-animated corpse added to its foundations.

Having said that, I could totally see Universal dusting off this property once again if the company needed a new, high-profile TV show to help launch its own streaming service.

Maybe Bandit could wear a fedora and drive a Tesla instead of relying on the classic cowboy hat/Trans Am combo. That would get Twitter buzzing.



Corner store companion:

No Name Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips (because if you’re watching this movie, you already have an appetite for some off-brand entertainment)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Jan. 30, 1994

Bandit Goes Country was followed by three other made-for-TV movies that aired the same year. This series includes: Bandit Bandit (March 13, 1994), Beauty and the Bandit (April 3, 1994), and Bandit’s Silver Angel (April 10, 1994). All four movies starred Brian Bloom and were directed by Hal Needham.

-Elizabeth Berkley’s role in Bandit Goes Country represents an interesting transitional period for the actress, since her time on the TV sitcom Saved By the Bell (1989-1992) had come to an end and she was a year away from attempting to launch her movie career by starring in Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995).

-Outside of serving as a supporting character in Bandit Goes Country, Mel Tillis also appeared in Smokey and the Bandit II as an amusement park owner.  

-Musical highlight: “Coca Cola Cowboy” by Mel Tillis (the country music star gets rewarded for being in this turd by having his song play as Bandit rides off into the sunset)