September 6th, 2018 saw the passing of Burt Reynolds. Schlockmania grew up with him being a regular attraction at movie theaters throughout the ’70s and ’80s. He was often chided by critics for erratic taste in material but that didn’t stop him from becoming one of the top box office attractions of his time, a grinning charmer who could handle comedy and action with equal aplomb.
Schlockmania humbly submits a tribute to Reynolds in the form of a look at five favorite films from his career. It omits obvious choices like Deliverance and Smokey And The Bandit to focus on personal favorites that hopefully allow for a more interesting discussion of Reynolds’ appeal.
WHITE LIGHTNING: This country-fried action film represents the birth of the smiling badass persona that would drive a lot of Reynolds’ subsequent career. In it, he plays Gator McKlusky, a moonshiner who goes undercover to deal with the corrupt sheriff (Ned Beatty) who bumped off his brother. A prototypical example of Burt’s down-home appeal, allowing him to flex his charm and dramatic chops as he brawls, romances and road-races his way to justice. Look for an alluring turn from Jennifer Billingsley as his Daisy Mae-esque love interest and listen for the kickass country-funk score by Charles Bernstein. Reynolds would later return to this character in Gator.
THE LONGEST YARD: Reynolds teams with iconoclastic director Robert Aldrich to make a film that is both a crowd-pleaser and one of his most subversive films. He plays Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, a crooked, self-destructive football star who finds himself in a Florida prison where the warden (Eddie Albert) challenges him to assemble a team of convicts to play against his guards’ semi-pro football team. The redemption of Crewe allows Reynolds to show off his gifts for humor, tough-guy thrills and drama and the film boasts an ace supporting cast with names like James Hampton, Ed Lauter, Charles Tyner, Richard Kiel, etc. And you don’t have to care about football to be thrilled by the film’s game-time second half: Aldrich gives Reynolds and company some thrilling filmmaking to prop up their efforts, including an excellent use of split-screens.
THE END: Reynold’s second feature film as star and director is his best example of his gift for comedy. Jerry Belson’s daring, mordantly witty script begins with Sonny (Reynolds) being told his anywhere from weeks to months to live, causing an existential crisis as he attempts suicide and ends up in a mental hospital. That premise might not sound funny but Belson’s script makes it a darkly comic delight. Reynolds does well as both star and director, even managing a finale that is as moving as it is funny, and the supporting cast can’t be beat: Dom DeLuise as his mental hospital cohort plus Sally Field, Carl Reiner, Joanne Woodward, Strother Martin, etc. The surprise scene stealers here are James Best (who gets the film’s best sight gag) and Robby Benson as an inexperienced priest who attempts to comfort Reynolds.
HOOPER: Smokey And The Bandit might be the biggest hit that Reynolds made with director/stunt coordinator pal Hal Needham but this is their most personal and unique work together. Reynolds plays the title character, an aging stuntman trying to prove his worth as he fends off challenges from a young upstart played by Jan-Michael Vincent. It’s right up there with The Stunt Man among the best big-screen tributes to stunt professionals, with Needham providing the right mix of humor, pathos and daredevil stuntwork. There are also funny turns from Adam West and Robert Klein but it’s Reynolds’ relationship with right-hand man James Best that gives the film its heart.
SHARKY’S MACHINE: Reynold’s third film as double-threat director/actor is his top achievement behind the camera, a policier that is as strong on noirish mood as it is on action. He plays a cop who gets busted down to vice squad after a public shootout gone horribly wrong. A surveillance mission involving a high-price call girl (Rachel Ward) leads to love, the uncovering of corruption and a lot of danger. Reynolds gets to play tough and tender here as he shows off impressive skills for staging action and suspense in the director’s chair. He’s got strong chemistry with Ward and gets ace backing from pros like Brian Keith, Charles Durning, Bernie Casey and Richard Libertini. As a bonus, you get Henry Silva as the most terrifying hit man who ever lived.
Hits You Should’ve Already Seen: Deliverance, Smokey And The Bandit, The Cannonball Run, Boogie Nights
Underrated: Fuzz, W.W. And The Dixie Dancekings, Hustle, Semi-Tough, Starting Over, The Man Who Loved Women, Heat (1986)
Flawed But Worthwhile: Gator, Stick, Malone, Striptease