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Before you see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, watch Smokey and the Bandit

Before you see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, watch Smokey and the Bandit


Tarantino’s latest film draws quite a bit of inspiration from the Burt Reynolds classic

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Reynolds As Bandit
Photo: Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to Watch

Smokey and the Bandit, a cross-country car chase comedy starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, and Jackie Gleason that became the second-most popular movie of 1977 (after a little film called Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope). Reynolds stars as Bo “The Bandit” Darville, an easygoing trucker who agrees to take a couple of deep-pocketed eccentric brothers up on their offer to transport a load of Coors beer to Atlanta, knowing that it’s forbidden to bring it east of Texas.

After experiencing early success on television, especially on the popular Western series Gunsmoke, Burt Reynolds hit rockier professional waters as the ’60s turned into the ’70s. Anyone gambling on who would become one of the biggest box office draws of the ’70s could have made a lot of money betting on Reynolds as a longshot. But his appearance in the stark 1972 thriller Deliverance started a comeback for Reynolds in the years that followed. He starred in deep-fried action movies like Gator, in which he played wisecracking good ol’ boys who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Through it all, Reynolds’ good friend and sometimes-stunt-double Hal Needham, one of the most sought-after stunt coordinators in the business, was by his side, often serving as stunt coordinator for Reynolds’ films even when he wasn’t credited.

Smokey and the Bandit would prove to be a big leap forward for both men. Needham sat in the director’s chair for the first time, and Reynolds brought the confidence and relaxed charm of an established movie star, grinning and chewing gum as he hit the highway. Playing a tireless, borderline incompetent Southern sheriff, Jackie Gleason provided a fun antagonist. With Sally Field (his off-screen partner at the time), Reynolds found a romantic chemistry that was sometimes absent from his earlier action comedies. Meanwhile, Needham opted for even bigger, more ambitious gags than usual, stunts that only look more impressive when compared to the CGI-dominated action scenes of today.

There’s an early moment that doubles as a litmus test: driving a Trans Am (with an unfortunate but era-appropriate Confederate flag license plate emblem), Bandit eludes a police cruiser by zipping onto a side street. He then looks directly at the camera and grins. In most movies, this would be unbearable. But here, it works. It’s the sort of silly, fun film that makes it easy to just be along for the ride.

Why watch now?

As usual, Quentin Tarantino draws on a plethora of sources for his new film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but the central relationship has more than a few parallels with Reynolds and Needham’s friendship. 

Like Reynolds, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton speaks with a twang and hails from Missouri (one of several states Reynolds lived in during a peripatetic childhood). Also like Reynolds, Dalton’s watched his stock fall in the years after starring in a popular TV series. Reynolds worked with spaghetti Western director Sergio Corbucci on the film Navajo Joe. Much of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood finds Dalton contemplating a similar move. Dalton’s best friend is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a talented stuntman who, unlike Needham, makes most of his money acting as Dalton’s gofer and driver while living in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater. (Needham never had trouble finding stunt work, and he lived in Reynolds’ guest house.)

As Reynolds and Needham found greater success in the ’70s than in the ’60s, they continued to work together. Reynolds had a particular appreciation for Needham’s gifts, and Needham’s approach meshed well with Reynolds’ up-for-anything approach to movie stardom, particularly when that approach landed him in hit after hit — at least for a while. (In retrospect, turning down Terms of Endearment to appear in Needham’s Stroker Ace might not have been such a good idea.)

Smokey and the Bandit
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Smokey and the Bandit isn’t the quintessential Reynolds / Needham collaboration — that title probably belongs to the semi-autobiographical Hooper, which is sadly unavailable via streaming services — but it’s certainly among their most entertaining. It now serves as an unusual coda for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in which Dalton is driven to the brink of depression by the rocky twists of his career. The film ends well before 1977, but if Reynolds’ career proved anything, it’s that you can plan and worry and try to figure out how to outwit Hollywood at its own game, and you’ll still never know what waits around the corner — be it obscurity or a big-rig hauling cases of beer and staying just a few steps ahead of the star of The Honeymooners.

Who it’s for

There’s a reason why Smokey and the Bandit became a huge hit that inspired two sequels: it’s an easy film to like, so long as you’re not allergic to broad comedy, redneck humor, smashing cars, and gum chewing. If you match that description, look elsewhere. Everyone else: grab a Coors (or, preferably, a better beer) and pull up a chair.

Where to see it

Smokey and the Bandit is available for rental on all major streaming services, and it’s currently streaming on Starz.