Sunday, April 12, 2015
In 1978, Burt Reynolds was considered the coolest movie star in the world. That may be impossible to fathom for those who have grown up in the 21st Century, but it's true. Reynolds' last movie, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, was an enormous hit, but the actor already had a huge following (especially among the drive-in crowd) with such films as THE LONGEST YARD, WHITE LIGHTNING, and GATOR. Reynolds had tapped into a certain sub-culture of entertainment--the country action-comedy. You can look down all you want on SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, but the movie was very influential--it spawned many imitators, such as the TV series THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, and even Clint Eastwood got in the act with EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (which wound up being his highest grossing movie of all time).
SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT was directed by Hal Needham, a former Hollywood stuntman who was a personal friend of Burt Reynolds. The success of that film enabled Needham and Reynolds to make a follow-up picture, HOOPER, which has just been released on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video.
HOOPER could easily be called SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT 1 1/2. Not only does the film reunite Needham and Reynolds, the leading lady of BANDIT, Sally Field, is also in it, and the Pontiac Firebird, the iconic car of the BANDIT, makes an appearance as well. Jerry Reed is not in HOOPER, but James Best plays a very Jerry Reed-like role.
As for the lead character of the film, Sonny Hooper, he's basically just like the Bandit....except instead of being the greatest gear-jammer in the world, Sonny is the greatest stuntman in the world. The opening sequence of HOOPER shows Sonny strapping protective padding all over himself while bullfighter music plays in the background. Sonny is currently working as stunt co-ordinator on a James Bond-type movie and doubling for the star, which is none other than Adam West (who plays--and spoofs--himself, long before he did it on FAMILY GUY). Sonny has to deal with an egotistical director (Robert Klein) and the fact that his long years of stunt work have taken a toll on his body. Hooper is constantly being fed painkillers by his assistant and buddy Cully (James Best).
Hooper finds out that there is a up and coming stuntman making the rounds, nicknamed Ski (Jan Michael-Vincent). In a movie made today, these guys would be at each other's throats, but in HOOPER the two men form a bond. (I think that Hal Needham--a former top stuntman himself--didn't want to show fellow stuntmen acting badly toward one another....after all, being a stuntman requires trusting in your colleagues.) Hooper gives Ski work on the James Bond-like film, and soon Ski is coming up with action sequences of his own. The director is so impressed he rewrites the entire ending, setting up a stunt involving a rocket car jumping over a gorge--a stunt so dangerous that no one is sure it will even work.
HOOPER is obviously Hal Needham's tribute to the Hollywood stuntman, and as such, is filled with all sorts of action set-pieces. The stunts performed here look even better today when one considers that no CGI whatsoever was used back then. As for Needham's portrayal of the life of the stuntman, Sonny and his crew spend most of their free time engaged in drunken juvenile hi-jinks (but nothing too nasty--this is a PG rated film after all). There's the usual bar fight, which features a cameo from Terry Bradshaw, who at the time was one of the best quaterbacks in the NFL. (Could you imagine what the reaction would be today if, say, Tom Brady appeared in a similar scene in a movie made now?) Apparently most of the situations in HOOPER were based on real-life experiences Hal Needham had as a stuntman.
As stated before, Sonny Hooper is very much like the Bandit--or rather, very much like Burt Reynolds' typical screen persona. Sonny is cocky, charismatic, and a smart-aleck--but underneath it all he's really a good guy. Sally Field is Sonny's girlfriend. Field and Reynolds were a real-life couple at the time, and just like in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, the two of them have great chemistry together (and Sally Field looks really good wearing shorts in this movie). Sally's dad in this picture is also a legendary stuntman who is somewhat of a mentor to Sonny, and he is played by Brian Keith, who steals just about every scene he is in.
Keith's character winds up having a stroke, which causes Sonny to reflect on his own health (Sonny's doctor tells him that if he was a horse, he'd be shot). Sonny is also badgered by his girlfriend not to perform the rocket-car stunt. In the end Sonny decides to do it anyway, one of the main reasons being that two men have to be in the rocket car (one has to drive and the other has to monitor the instruments), and Sonny wants to do the stunt with Ski.
The rewritten ending of the movie Sonny is working on has the equivalent of an entire town being destroyed--and this happens before the rocket car jump. Thus the climax of HOOPER has just about every crazy stunt you can think of, and Ski and Sonny pull off the jump, which is pretty spectacular. (This isn't the type of movie that is going to have a depressing ending.)
When it comes to 1970s cinema, HOOPER certainly isn't in the same class as THE DEER HUNTER, but then it isn't supposed to be. It is designed to be crowd-pleasing entertainment, and on that level it does work. An audience of today would view HOOPER with puzzlement or maybe even anger--this is a very politically incorrect film with a working-class American mentality. I can imagine millennials dismissing HOOPER as nothing more than a bunch of white people acting stupid. I have to admit the main reason I bought this Blu-ray was nostalgia--I loved this movie when I was a kid. If you don't get HOOPER, or you don't get why Burt Reynolds was once so popular, that's okay. There's plenty of folks who don't get superhero movies either.