People often say that “good things come in threes,” but those folks obviously never watched the Smokey and the Bandit trilogy.
Sure, the series started off on the right foot in 1977 with an easy-going sleeper hit that defined “cool” for an entire generation of moviegoers.
Unfortunately, the Smokey name quickly nose-dived into sellout territory with a 1980 sequel that was in short supply of laughs, charm, and impressive stunt work.
That film was so bad that director Hal Needham declined to take part in Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (1983), with star Burt Reynolds only agreeing to make a brief cameo.
As such, the focus of this movie shifted to Jackie Gleason’s bumbling sheriff Buford T. Justice, who (mostly) serves as the protagonist this time around even though the first two films in this series were bristling with anti-authoritarian energy.
To make matters worse, Part 3 was plagued with conflicting creative visions during production, resulting in a bunch of expensive reshoots that forced the filmmakers to cobble all these disparate pieces together in the editing room.
Because of this, the theatrical Smokey and the Bandit trilogy ends on a pretty sour note, with a lazy, unfocused final entry that’s totally content with coasting on cruise control.
While the absence of Burt Reynolds is already a tough pill to swallow, the plot of Part 3 doesn’t help matters by being completely inane.
Even though Buford T. Justice serves as the protagonist here, the writers basically recycle the same story from the last two films, where a pair of wealthy Texans task the recently retired police officer with transporting some precious cargo across the American south for $250,000.
This kind of premise might have worked for an outlaw character like the Bandit, but Gleason’s cop seems like a square peg that the filmmakers are trying to stuff into a round hole.
After all, Justice never seemed preoccupied with material concerns like money throughout his first two big-screen appearances, with his motivation to catch and arrest Reynolds’ charming rogue being primarily ego-driven.
I guess the logic behind Part 3 is that Justice is bored after retiring from the force and is looking for some kind of action to relive the glory days.
But that element never gets addressed in any meaningful way, with the filmmakers being far more preoccupied with staging zany car chases and bad comedy skits.
The plot gets muddied even further with the re-introduction of Bandit’s sidekick Cledus Snow (Jerry Reed), who is hired to disguise himself as the famous outlaw and distract Justice on the road so that he doesn’t arrive at his destination in time.
It’s at this point that the movie goes from being lazy to outright shameless in terms of its attempt to hoodwink the audience into thinking they’re watching the first film.
Not only do the filmmakers dress Reed up in Reynolds’ iconic red shirt and cowboy hat, but they also give him the keys to the Pontiac Trans Am and have him pick-up another runaway woman who isn’t Sally Field.
Even though Reed tries to put his own spin on the Bandit character, he comes across as a cheap imitation of Reynolds and not even an amusingly absurd one like Norm MacDonald’s work on SNL.
This element of the movie also highlights the behind-the-scenes production woes that plagued Smokey and the Bandit Part 3.
According to multiple sources, Reed wasn’t even supposed to be involved, with the original plan being that Gleason would tackle a dual role as both Sheriff Justice and the Bandit.
However, this version of the film, titled “Smokey is the Bandit,” was disliked by test audiences, which encouraged Universal Pictures to order re-shoots with Reed’s participation.
While the severity of these re-shoots is still a matter of debate, it’s clear that these last-minute production changes had a significant impact on the final product, given how disjointed everything feels.
Since the filmmakers don’t fully commit to Justice or Reed as the main character, there’s no emotional throughline to lead the audience through this razor-thin story that mostly consists of throwaway car stunts, janky editing and bad ADR.
In fact, if one were to take out the end credits and the two-and-a-half minute introductory recap that consists of archive footage, this movie is barely feature length, which is undoubtedly a consequence of all the “Smokey is the Bandit” footage being scrapped.
But with that being said, Part 3 isn’t a total bust and actually does improve on its predecessor in one key area.
While the team behind Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) were surprisingly reluctant to stage any car chases until the very end of that film, director Dick Lowry and his crew do a much better job of pacing the action this time around.
Admittedly, a lot of the stunt work here is pretty basic and way too reliant on slow motion to artificially crank up the excitement of every chase.
But at least the automotive destruction is in good supply here and should satisfy anyone who just wants to see a police cruiser plow through a milk tanker.
Part 3’s soundtrack is also surprisingly strong, offering a variety of original tracks from country music heavyweights like Lee Greenwood and Ed Bruce.
So on a purely surface level, this film provides all the sights and sounds one would expect of a road comedy from this era, although there’s not a lot to praise beyond that.
Overall, the project feels like a lot of the cynical sequels and remakes that get made these days, where the audience is constantly bombarded with winks and nods to the original property they like, without anything fresh or original being offered in return.
But whereas these soulless cash-grabs keep racking in major box office returns today, moviegoers in 1983 at least had the good sense to stay away from Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 in droves.
In stark contrast to the $120 million that the first Smokey film generated, Part 3 couldn’t break even on a $9 million budget, meaning the franchise had officially run out of gas.
Of course, the Bandit name didn’t completely die out after this bomb, with Hal Needham eventually bringing the character back just over a decade later, this time on the small screen.
But that’s a story for another time.
For now, I just hope the lost “Smokey is the Bandit” footage eventually sees the light of day, since the surviving promotional image of Gleason dressed up like Reynolds is way funnier than most of the jokes in Part 3.
Corner store companion:
Diet Pepsi (because it’s that thing you like, without some of the key ingredients that make it cool)
-Release date: Aug. 12, 1983
-Box office: $5,678,950
-Budget: $9 million
-Roger Ebert named Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 one of the worst movies of 1983, calling it an “annuity in action” for how blatantly it was trying to capitalize off of the box office success of the first two films.
-In 1983 Jackie Gleason also starred in The Sting II, another maligned sequel to a beloved film that retained none of the original leads.
–Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 marks director Dick Lowry’s only theatrical release. Lowry spent the rest of his career helming television projects.
-Remnants of the old “Smokey is the Bandit” footage can be glimpsed in certain sections of Part 3, since Reed’s stunt double is sometimes a heavy-set man who was obviously meant to be a stand-in for Gleason.
-Musical highlight: “The Bandit Express” by Lee Greenwood (plays during one of the movie’s many car chases).