SXSW Film Review – The Bandit
Jesse Moss’ The Bandit (2016) documents the friendship of actor Burt Reynolds and stuntman Hal Needham, particularly their collaboration on the film, Smokey and the Bandit (1977). Of all the partnerships we’ve seen in cinema history, Reynolds and Needham is one of the least talked about. They were friends and roommates, and both basked in the glory of fame and fortune. Smokey and the Bandit was Needham’s baby (he served as director despite having no experience) and the only reason it came to fruition was because it was backed by Reynolds, at the time was one of the biggest stars in the world.
Reynolds and Needham were cut from the same cloth. Both represented the classic (some may say outdated) view of masculinity. They had a love of cars, beer, women, partying, and the south. They were two sides of the same coin. Reynolds was an athlete in his youth, and stumbled into acting after an injury ended his football career. Needham was the son of a sharecropper, served in the military, and found a knack for physicality. That skill brought him to Los Angeles as a stuntman, where he quickly became known as the guy who would fall from great heights…a lot. Reynolds was drawn to stuntmen, in a way he saw them as the “jocks” of Hollywood. Needham became attached to Reynolds and was envious of his fame. In a way, both wanted what the other had: Reynolds wanted to jump around and perform stunts, Needham wanted superstardom.
The work the two did on Smokey and the Bandit was as a labor of love. No one on the set, including Reynolds and Needham, thought they were making a “classic” film. The studio gave them a budget of $4.3 million ($1 million of which went to Reynolds). Many members of the crew were first timers. The plot was a sham, about a character hauling beer across county lines while a sheriff (Jackie Gleason) hunts him down. Needham knew what he was working with, and decided to focus on what he was good at: fast cars and big stunts. The combination of Reynolds’ charisma and the high paced action comedy made Smokey and the Bandit one of the surprise hits of the year.
The making of the film proves to be the most interesting portion of Moss’ documentary. When we start looking into Reynolds and Needham as their own characters, the curiosity starts to wane. We don’t get much outside of their friendship. They loved the spotlight, shared the same kind of flashy clothes and extravagant homes, and went through a parade of women. In one interview, Reynolds gives a tour of his mansion, proudly showing his Native American artwork, but perhaps more proud of the mirror he has attached to the bedroom ceiling. Many old friends and acquaintances give interviews, including a number of fellow stuntmen. The way they reminisce about the “good old days” of partying further highlights the celebration of male wish fulfillment.
It’s too bad we don’t delve deeper into Reynolds and Needham. The only insights we get are the troubles they had handling their success. Needham wanted to be a superstar, but he was not an actor. His willingness to put himself on the line for a stunt borders on reckless, but he did it without hesitation. Reynolds has always been something of an enigma. He has a physical presence, a handsome face, and undeniable charm. The comparisons to a young Marlon Brando comes as no surprise. Black and white footage has Reynolds doing a Brando impression, and the similarity is uncanny. And yet, for every Deliverance (1972) and Boogie Nights (1997) would come a host of poor roles. It’s as though Reynolds was so self-aware that many of his choices were based on looking good instead of the quality of the pictures. That’s the quandary of his legacy, his desire to be taken seriously as an actor going against his love of being a star. Even this documentary is indicative of that. Hal Needham is nowhere near as famous, but the work he’s done should be recognized and remembered. Yet the title is based on the character Reynolds played in Smokey and the Bandit. The friendly rivalry that defined their relationship is certainly present here as well.
As entertaining as The Bandit is, I came away with an empty feeling. All of the stock footage, old interviews, and behind the scenes shots were fairly interesting, but what we get about Burt Reynolds and Hall Needham were from a surface level. Maybe they refused to be put in a place where they’re real vulnerabilities would come to light. Instead, we get a bunch of people describing how awesomely tough and manly they were. The few instances we hear about them being irresponsible, it comes with a chuckle and a wave of the hand as if to say, “Oh well, boys will be boys!” I’d like to think there’s more to them than just that.